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UN prosecutor to investigate alleged war crimes in West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza

UNITED NATIONS — The prosecutor for the UN’s Hague-based International Criminal Court announced Friday that she will open a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, a move that was strongly condemned by Israeli officials.

“Today, I announce that following a thorough, independent and objective assessment of all reliable information available to my Office, the preliminary examination into the Situation in Palestine has concluded with the determination that all the statutory criteria under the Rome Statute for the opening of an investigation have been met,” Fatou Bensouda said in a prepared statement announcing her plans to launch a probe.

But Bensouda also said she will rely on a yet-to-be-made determination from the court’s pretrial chamber on whether the ICC has jurisdiction over the occupied Palestinian territories under the Rome Statute that empowers the ICC to investigate and prosecute crimes.

The measure established the court and gives it the power to prosecute the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression when invited to do so by a party to the statute or if the alleged crimes occur on the territory of a party and that country is unwilling or unable to handle the matter itself.

The ICC recognizes the State of Palestine as a party, though Palestinian statehood is not recognized by Israel. Israel itself is not a party to the court.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, reacted swiftly in rejecting the move.

"The prosecutor's decision in the International Criminal Court reflects the anti-Israeli tendency rooted in The Hague,” he said in a statement. “The institution is becoming nothing more than another partisan political tool to wield against the Jewish State. This decision exposes the ICC’s desire to follow political considerations, not legal ones.”

The inquiry is likely to focus on alleged transgressions that occurred during the weekslong conflict between the Gaza-based Hamas and Israel — the 51-day Gaza war of 2014. The inquiry, however, could also include more recent clashes, including the conflict of 2018 when Palestinians engaged in demonstrations along the border fence between Gaza and Israel resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians. Many were shot by Israel Defense Forces for alleged breaches of the border fence and threatening violence against Israeli civilians.

“I am satisfied that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,” she said, adding that she believes that “potential cases arising from the situation would be admissible” with “no substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve justice.”

Palestinian leaders called for such a probe after more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed during the conflict in 2014. The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict said tensions exploded in June 2014 after two serious incidents: Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, and those crimes were followed by the kidnapping and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager from east Jerusalem whose body was found in west Jerusalem.

Israel launched a military operation called Protective Edge as Hamas launched rockets into Israel, the report said. The Israeli campaign began as airstrikes but evolved into a ground assault.

“Palestinians and Israelis were profoundly shaken by the events of the summer of 2014,” read the report issued in June 2015. “In Gaza, in particular, the scale of the devastation was unprecedented. The death toll alone speaks volumes: 2,251 Palestinians were killed, including 1,462 Palestinian civilians, of whom 299 women and 551 children; and 11,231 Palestinians, including 3,540 women and 3,436 children, were injured.”

Further, the report said, on the Israeli side, “the death of six civilians in Israel and 67 soldiers and the injury of up to 1,600 others were also the tragic result of the hostilities.”

Bensouda said she will wait until the proper jurisdictional questions have been resolved.

“This foundational question should be decided now, and as swiftly as possible in the interests of victims and affected communities; potential witnesses and their related protection needs and obligations as well as the conduct of the investigations and the efficiency of the judicial proceedings, not to mention providing clarity for the States concerned,” she said. “As such, as a prosecuting office, we believe this is the responsible step to take in the circumstances of this situation.”

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