Visiting Israel and Ramallah, ICC chief vows to intensify probe against Hamas, IDF

Prosecutor Karim Khan says he witnessed ‘scenes of calculated cruelty’ at locations of Oct. 7 massacre; notes IDF faces tough conditions in Gaza but international law still applies

Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan visits a Gaza border town attacked by Hamas, on December 3, 2023. (Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum)
Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan visits a Gaza border town attacked by Hamas, on December 3, 2023. (Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court rounded off a historic first visit to Israel and the West Bank by posting video and written messages on Sunday, saying that a probe by the court into possible crimes by Hamas terrorists as well as the IDF “is a priority for my office.”

In a video message from Ramallah, where he met with top Palestinian leaders, Prosecutor Karim Khan said the investigation that was launched in 2021 is “moving forward at pace, with rigor, with determination and with an insistence that we act not on emotion but on solid evidence.”

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, kill some 1,200 people and seize roughly 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

As terror gunmen seized border communities, the vast majority of those killed in Israel 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.

Israel responded with an intense land and air campaign aimed at destroying Hamas and securing the release of the hostages. Over a seven-day truce in Gaza that ended Friday, more than 100 hostages, mostly Israeli, were released by Hamas in a Qatar-brokered deal that saw Israel free three times as many Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas-run health authorities in Gaza said Saturday that the overall death toll in the strip since the start of the war had surpassed 15,200. The Hamas ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths and includes in its figure Palestinians killed by errant rockets launched by Gaza terror groups, but it claimed 70% of the dead were women and children, and said more than 40,000 people had been wounded since the war began.

Khan said in a written statement issued after his visit that he witnessed “scenes of calculated cruelty” at locations of the October 7 attacks. During the visit, he spoke to family members of Israeli victims and called for the immediate and unconditional release of hostages taken by Hamas and other terror groups.

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

In a statement released by the Forum for Hostages and Missing Families Forum, the families thanked Khan “for the extraordinary decision to come and stand by the families in the aftermath of the horrors perpetrated by Hamas in Israel on October 7 and the continued detention of hostages. We expect him to work to bring Hamas terrorists to justice for crimes against humanity and genocide.”

Khan said 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.

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.

Khan also visited Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas and spoke to Palestinian victims. He 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 law must still apply and the Israeli military knows the law that must be applied.”

This handout picture provided by the Palestinian Press Office (PPO) shows Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas (CR) meeting with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan (CL) in Ramallah in the West Bank on December 2, 2023. (Photo by Thaer GHANAIM / PPO / AFP)

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.”

In his video message, Khan also said that humanitarian aid must be allowed into Gaza.

“In Gaza, it is not acceptable — there’s no justification — for doctors to perform operations without light, for children to be operated upon without anesthetics,” he said. “Imagine the pain of operations on children, on anybody, on any of us, without anesthetics. I also emphasized that Hamas must not divert any aid that’s given.”

Khan also expressed “profound concern” at what he called “the significant increase in incidents of attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.

“I emphasize, settler violence is unacceptable,” he said in his video. “It’s something we are investigating. We have been investigating and we are accelerating investigations. No Israeli settler armed with an ideology and a gun can think it’s open season on Palestinians.”

Khan said he would seek to work with “all actors” in the conflict to “ensure that when action is taken by my office it is done on the basis of objective, verifiable evidence which can stand scrutiny in the courtroom and ensure that when we do proceed we have a realistic prospect of conviction.”

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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