ICC chief prosecutor meets with Oct. 7 survivors in Israel, PA president

In unprecedented trip, Karim Khan talks with families of hostages, says they need ‘not just empathy, but action’

Public Prosecutor Karim Khan prepares for the trial of Mahamat Said Abdel Kani at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, September 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Pool)
Public Prosecutor Karim Khan prepares for the trial of Mahamat Said Abdel Kani at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, September 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Pool)

Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, visited Israel over the weekend at the request of families of hostages held by Hamas, the first trip to the country by an ICC chief prosecutor.

Khan toured some of the communities attacked during the October 7 Hamas onslaught, including Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Kfar Aza, and heard testimonies from survivors of the massacre.

In a written statement issued after his visit he said he witnessed “scenes of calculated cruelty” at locations of the attacks.

Khan also said that international crimes — extremely serious violations of international law — were likely committed: “These were not random murders. People were murdered because of their identity.”

“The attacks against innocent Israeli civilians on 7 October represent some of the most serious international crimes that shock the conscience of humanity, crimes which the ICC was established to address,” Khan said, adding that he and his prosecutors are working “to hold those responsible to account.”

He added that he is ready to engage with local prosecutors in line with the principle of complementarity – the ICC is a court of last resort set up to prosecute war crimes when local courts cannot or will not take action.

“I would be completely incompetent if I don’t check the instances of children being kidnapped from their beds and Holocaust survivors being taken into captivity,” Khan told Haaretz.

Regarding the families who invited him, Khan said they “expect not just empathy, but action.”

Hamas’s October 7 massacre saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air, and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children, and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 360 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.

Illustrative: Scenes of houses destroyed when Hamas terrorists infiltrated Kibbutz Be’eri, and 30 other nearby communities in Southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people, seen on October 25, 2023. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

Israel responded with an intense land and air campaign aimed at destroying Hamas and securing freedom for the hostages.

Khan said that he would like to cooperate with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority regarding any future investigation, though he stressed that such cooperation is not necessary to carry out an inquiry.

Despite not being a member of the ICC and denying the institution’s jurisdiction over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel decided to respect the hostage families’ request to have Khan make an unofficial visit. Nevertheless, the trip does not constitute a change in Israel’s policy toward the ICC, possibly due to fears that an investigation of the October 7 atrocities will draw more inquiries into Israeli actions against Palestinians. While Israel is not a member of the ICC, if warrants are issued certain citizens could be subject to arrest while traveling abroad.

Last month, families of nine Israeli victims of the October 7 Hamas massacre lodged a complaint at the ICC for suspected war crimes and genocide. Any individual or group can bring a case to the ICC, which is located in The Hague in the Netherlands, but it is up to the court’s prosecutor to launch an investigation.

During his visit, Khan also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, also the first such trip made by an ICC chief prosecutor, in which possible Israeli violations of international law were discussed.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan in Ramallah, West Bank, December 2, 2023. (Thaer Ghanaim/ Palestinian Press Office via AFP)

In his statement, Khan said of the war in Gaza that fighting in “densely populated areas where fighters are alleged to be unlawfully embedded in the civilian population is inherently complex, but international humanitarian must still apply and the Israeli military knows the law that must be applied.”

He said that Israel “has trained lawyers who advise commanders and a robust system intended to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law. Credible allegations of crimes during the current conflict should be the subject of timely, independent examination and investigation.”

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says that over 15,000 people have been killed in Israel’s offensive in the Palestinian territory, though those numbers cannot be independently verified and are believed to include both civilians and terror operatives killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

The prosecutor said his office was also looking into claims of settler violence in the West Bank as well as possible war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza since war broke out on October 7.

“The laws of war must be complied with,” Khan told Haaretz. “The law can’t be interpreted in such a way that women and children have no protection.”

Palestinian human rights groups refused to meet with Khan over the weekend, claiming the prosecutor has favored Israeli claims of human rights abuses since October 7.

“As Palestinian human rights organizations, we decided not to meet him,” Ammar Dwaik, director general of the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), told Reuters.

“I think the way this visit has been handled shows that Mr. Khan is not handling his work in an independent and professional manner,” he added.

In 2019, the ICC announced that it would be launching a probe into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict, Israeli settlement policy and the Israeli response to protests at the Gaza border. The probe was formally opened on March 3, 2021, and was met with strong criticism from Israel.

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