ICC prosecutor warns against crimes in escalating Israel-Palestinian violence


FILE PHOTO: Public Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda attends the trial for Malian Islamist militant Al-Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud at the ICC (International Criminal Court) in the Hague, the Netherlands July 8, 2019. REUTERS/Eva Plevier/Pool

(Corrects to remove reference to "investigators" in paragraph 15)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (Reuters) -Individuals involved in a new eruption of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed may be targeted by an International Criminal Court investigation now under way into alleged war crimes in earlier bouts of the conflict, its top prosecutor said in an interview.

The ICC's Fatou Bensouda told Reuters she would press ahead with her inquiry even without the cooperation of Israel, which accuses her office of anti-Semitic bias and - like its closest ally the United States - rejected membership in the treaty-based court, objecting to its jurisdiction.Israel and Palestinian Islamist groups plunged this week into their fiercest round of fighting since 2014, with punishing Israeli air strikes on Gaza and fighters based in the densely populated enclave firing over 1,600 rockets into Israel. At least 83 Palestinians and seven Israelis have died.

"These are events that we are looking at very seriously," Bensouda said. "We are monitoring very closely and I remind that an investigation has opened and the evolution of these events could also be something we look at."

In March her office said it was opening a formal investigation into suspected war crimes in the conflict after nearly five years of preliminary inquiries.

It said it had reasonable basis to believe offences had been committed by both the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups, including fighters of the Hamas group, in the Gaza Strip and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"This is just to alert people on all sides not to escalate, to be careful to avoid taking actions that will result in the commission of (war) crimes," Bensouda said in a reference to the current hostilities.

The ICC, based in The Hague, is an independent, permanent war crimes court that succeeded ad hoc U.N. tribunals which tackled the 1990s Rwandan genocide and Yugoslav conflict. It prosecutes individuals, not countries, when a member state is unwilling or unable to do so itself.

'POLITICALLY FRAUGHT' INVESTIGATION

The ICC is examining whether Israeli forces committed war crimes - including disproportionate attacks and wilful killings of civilians - during the 2014 Gaza war when Israeli armoured forces swept into the heavily urbanised enclave.

It is also probing whether Hamas, which rules Gaza, and other Palestinian armed factions carried out intentional attacks on civilians with rocket fire into Israel, as well as torture and killings of Palestinians by Palestinian security services.

While the investigation is "politically fraught", Bensouda said, she denied accusations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that her office was biased, or was singling out the state of Israel.

"It is regrettable and indeed unfortunate that these are the reactions that the prime minister would have. This is far from the truth," said Bensouda, a Gambian who will be replaced by Britain's Karim Khan when her nine-year term ends next month.

Bensouda said the decision to pursue the investigation was anchored "in the law", not politics.

"There is a lot of rhetoric. There is also unfortunately a lot of misinformation about what this case is and what it is not...And there is a lot of spinning about the ICC, trying to portray (it) as being biased, one-sided...which is not the case. We are always very impartial. We are always very objective."

Bensouda said her team met regularly with Israeli and Palestinian officials about the ICC's preliminary inquiries to create transparency and give both sides a fair opportunity to present their positions.

"This is perhaps even more complex than what we have faced before," Bensouda said, "but yes, at the moment there are signs there will be no cooperation whatsoever from one side..., and (we) will have to look for a way to deal with that."

The Palestinian Authority, which exercises self-rule in parts of the West Bank but has no power in Gaza, is an ICC member and has repeatedly urged it to prosecute Israelis over alleged crimes in wars in 2014 and 2008-09.

More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the seven-week Gaza war in 2014, which saw a devastating Israeli offensive into the enclave during which thousands of homes were razed, along with 73 Israelis from rockets fired out of Gaza into Israel.

This time around, many more Gaza rockets are crashing into Israel's commercial heartland, while Israel said it had bombed close to a thousand targets in Gaza and has massed tanks and troops along the enclave's border.

Asked about the ICC investigation, Israel military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said Israeli forces were "committed to international law" and that Hamas fighters should be prosecuted.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Palestinian fighter groups were carrying out a "natural right of self-defence" and it was Israeli leaders the ICC should prosecute.

"Our people are the victims of the aggression conducted by the Israeli occupation, which is carrying out all forms of killing and violence against our people," he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg; Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell and Zainah El-Haroun in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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