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Fear of arrest warrants against ex-officers within months

ICC probe expected to advance in coming weeks; Israel to decide if cooperating

Jerusalem will have 30 days to respond to formal letter from The Hague detailing investigation scope; while it leans toward doing so, PM still hoping for delay until new prosecutor

Demonstrators carry banners outside the International Criminal Court, ICC, rear, urging the court to prosecute Israel's army for alleged war crimes in The Hague on Nov. 29, 2019. (AP/Peter Dejong)
Demonstrators carry banners outside the International Criminal Court, ICC, rear, urging the court to prosecute Israel's army for alleged war crimes in The Hague on Nov. 29, 2019. (AP/Peter Dejong)

The International Criminal Court will send Jerusalem a letter next week formally detailing the scope of its war crimes investigation against Israel and the Palestinians, Channel 13 reported Friday.

Israel will then have 30 days to respond, the report said, adding that Jerusalem is leaning toward doing so after largely refusing to cooperate with The Hague-based international court until now. However, Israel is expected to use its response as an opportunity to once again voice the argument that the ICC has no jurisdiction to hear the case.

The hope in Israel is that its argument over jurisdiction will succeed in delaying the case until outgoing ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is replaced in June by British lawmaker Karim Khan, whom Jerusalem hopes may be less hostile or may even cancel the probe.

A number of officials told Channel 13 that they’re concerned the ICC may already start issuing arrest warrants against former IDF officers in the coming months.

Consequently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have begun reaching out to counterparts throughout Europe to galvanize support against the case, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Netanyahu and Gantz have been stressing in those calls that the investigation is biased against Israel, which has an independent legal system capable of prosecuting any alleged crimes.

Bensouda announced on Wednesday that she was opening an investigation into actions committed by Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 2014.

Bensouda indicated in 2019 that a criminal investigation would likely focus on the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, Israeli settlement policy, and the 2018 Great March of Return protests, a series of violent demonstrations along Gaza’s border with Israel that left dozens of Palestinians dead.

Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC), briefs the Security Council on the situation in Libya, May 8, 2019 (UN Photo/Loey Felip)

However, it is unclear to what degree Israel’s argument would stick, particularly with regard to settlement policy, as in recent years Israeli courts have been used to regulate settlements and legalize wildcat outposts in the West Bank, which most of the international community deems as illegal.

Meanwhile, Israel has sent warnings to the Palestinian Authority, which had submitted the requests to the ICC in 2014 that led to these probes, telling Ramallah that the war crime investigation will make it difficult for Jerusalem to advance confidence-building measures for the Palestinians, Kan reported Thursday. PA officials responded, saying that just as Israel has engaged in peace talks while building in the settlements, the Palestinians can continue their contacts with Israel while the ICC probe moves forward.

The announcement of the investigation came less than a month after the court ruled it had the jurisdiction to open a probe. A preliminary investigation to settle the justiciability question took more than five years.

“The investigation will cover crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court that are alleged to have been committed in the situation since 13 June 2014, the date to which reference is made in the referral of the situation to my office,” Bensouda said in a statement on Wednesday.

A demonstrator poses with a Palestinian flag outside the International Criminal Court, ICC, during a rally urging the court to prosecute Israel’s army for war crimes, in The Hague, Netherlands, November 29, 2019. (AP/Peter Dejong)

Ramallah has been gearing up for the investigation for years, preparing documents and submitting files to the ICC on what it deems to be Israeli war crimes.

Israeli observers noted the significance of the timing of the investigation’s span: On June 12, 2014, Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank. Bensouda’s investigation — based on the request submitted by the so-called State of Palestine — is set to begin from the following day.

The brutal terror attack, which horrified Israelis and drew international condemnation, was a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the fighting in Gaza later that summer. With the investigation set to consider events beginning on June 13, 2014, the crime could be excluded from the court’s investigation.

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