The United States has joined Israel in condemning the International Criminal Court’s decision to open a preliminary probe into possible war crimes committed against Palestinians, blasting it as a “tragic irony”.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office would conduct an “analysis in full independence and impartiality” into alleged war crimes by Israel, including those committed during last summer’s Gaza offensive, in which nearly 2,200 Palestinians – the majority civilians – and 73 Israelis – the majority soldiers – were killed.
Her decision comes after Palestine formally joined the ICC earlier this month, allowing it to lodge war crimes and crimes against humanity complaints against Israel as of April.
The US criticised the decision late on Friday, saying it opposed actions against Israel at the ICC as “counterproductive to the cause of peace”.
“It is a tragic irony that Israel, which has withstood thousands of terrorist rockets fired at its civilians and its neighbourhoods, is now being scrutinised by the ICC,” US state department spokesman Jeff Rathke said.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had earlier reacted angrily to the prosecutor’s decision, calling it “scandalous” and “absurd” since “the Palestinian Authority co-operates with Hamas, a terror group that commits war crimes, in contrast to Israel that fights terror while maintaining international law, and has an independent justice system.”
Ms Bensouda had earlier stressed that “a preliminary examination is not an investigation but a process of examining the information available … on whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation.”
She will decide at a later stage whether or not to launch a full investigation.
The Palestinians’ decision to join the ICC is seen as part of a shift in strategy to internationalise their campaign for statehood and move away from the stalled US-led peace process.
Their UN status was upgraded from “observer” to “observer state” in 2012, allowing them to join the ICC and a host of other international organisations.
Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said the sole purpose of the ICC’s examination was to “try to harm Israel’s right to defend itself from terror” and he said the decision was “solely motivated by political anti-Israel considerations.”
Mr Lieberman accused the court of double standards for not examining the mass killings in Syria or other conflict zones, investigating instead “the most moral army in the world”.
Earlier this month, Israel delayed transferring some US$127 million (Dh466.4m) in taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians in retaliation for its move to join the ICC.
Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al Malki has welcomed the court’s decision.
“Everything is going according to plan, no state and nobody can now stop this action we requested,” he said.
“In the end, a full investigation will follow the preliminary one.”
Human rights group Amnesty International welcomed the ICC’s announcement saying it “could pave the way for thousands of victims of crimes under international law to gain access to justice.”
But the initial probe could also lead to an investigation into crimes “committed by all sides”, Amnesty added.
Friday’s announcement is the second such initial probe by the ICC’s prosecutor into the situation in Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority lodged a complaint against Israel in 2009 but the court’s prosecutor said in 2012 that after “carefully considering legal arguments” it could not investigate because of the Palestinians’ then status at the United Nations.
At the time the Palestinians’ “observer” status blocked them from signing up to the ICC’s founding Rome Statute.
While 123 countries have now ratified the Rome Statute, Israel and the United States have not.