ICC prosecutors report ‘significant’ progress in Palestinian probe

Officials say they plan to complete ‘as early as possible’ a preliminary investigation into allegations of crimes in West Bank, Gaza

ICC's prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, right, and deputy prosecutor James Stewart, center, at the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday Nov. 23, 2018. (Piroschka van de Wouw/pool/AP)
ICC's prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, right, and deputy prosecutor James Stewart, center, at the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday Nov. 23, 2018. (Piroschka van de Wouw/pool/AP)

International Criminal Court prosecutors intend to complete “as early as possible” a long-running preliminary investigation into allegations of crimes in the Palestinian territories, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The annual report by ICC prosecutors on progress in nine so-called preliminary examinations underway at the court said that the Palestinian territories probe “has advanced and significantly progressed” in its analysis of whether legal conditions for opening a case have been met.

Those legal conditions include whether alleged crimes were serious enough to be dealt with at the global tribunal and whether local authorities are investigating and prosecuting the crimes. The ICC is a court of last resort that only takes on cases when local courts cannot or will not prosecute.

ICC prosecutors have been conducting a preliminary inquiry since 2015 in the Palestinian territories, including Israel’s settlement policy, crimes allegedly committed by both sides in the 2014 Gaza conflict and Hamas rocket attacks aimed at Israeli civilians.

Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has yet to rule on whether there is a basis to investigate Palestinian claims of war crimes.

Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) during the closing statements of the trial of Bosco Ntaganda, a Congo militia leader, in The Hague, Netherlands, August 28, 2018. (Bas Czerwinski/Pool via AP)

Israel is not a member of the court and doesn’t accept ICC jurisdiction. But Israeli forces could face charges if they are suspected of committing crimes on Palestinian territories. The court has accepted the “State of Palestine” as a member.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that Jerusalem was studying the report.

“As is well-known, Israel is not a member state of the International Criminal Court, and our clear position is that the court has no authority to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other things because the Palestinian Authority is not a state,” he said. “We expect the prosecutor to rule thusly at the end of her examination.”

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recently said he was drafting a legal opinion that refutes the ICC’s legitimacy to discuss matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because “there is no Palestinian state.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a State Control Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In January 2015 Bensouda opened a preliminary examination into the “situation in Palestine,” after the Palestinian Authority signed the Rome Statute and formally accepted the court’s jurisdiction over its territory.

However, the legal validity of the move remains a subject of contention.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has called on the ICC to probe and prosecute Israeli officials over settlement activity.

Mandelblit has been cognizant of the ICC’s influence on issues pertaining to the Palestinians, encouraging cabinet ministers last month to delay the demolition of the West Bank Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar, saying a forced evacuation could compromise the Israeli position vis-a-vis Palestinian claims at the Hague.

Last Wednesday, the Justice Ministry denied a report that the ICC had told Israel officials there was no legal obstacle to razing the village, despite Bensouda previously warning the demolition might be a war crime.

The prosecutor’s office currently has nine preliminary probes underway. Others focus on Iraq, Colombia, Guinea, Nigeria, the Philippines, Ukraine, Venezuela and Bangladesh. Prosecutors are also looking at alleged crimes committed by Myanmar forces against Rohingya Muslims.

Judges are expected to shortly rule on a request by Bensouda, made more than a year ago, to open a full-scale investigation into Afghanistan that also would cover alleged crimes in CIA secret detention facilities in Europe.

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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