The International Criminal Court prosecutor has said she has launched an investigation into alleged Israeli crimes in the Palestinian territories.
The investigation plunges the court into the midst of one of the most fraught conflicts of the past half-a-century.
Fatou Bensouda said in a statement that the investigation would be conducted “independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favour”.
The decision in effect turns the court’s focus on two key Israeli policies of recent years: its repeated military operations against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, highlighted by a devastating 2014 war, and its expansion of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
If the investigation identifies suspects allegedly responsible for crimes, prosecutors can ask judges to issue international arrest warrants, which can remain under seal to help authorities apprehend those charged.
Israel swiftly condemned the decision.
Foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi called it “an act of moral and legal bankruptcy” and said Israel “will take every step necessary to protect its citizens and soldiers from legal persecution”.
Ms Bensouda said in 2019 there was a “reasonable basis” to open a war crimes investigation into Israeli military actions in the Gaza Strip as well as Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.
Following that assessment, she asked judges to rule on the extent of the court’s jurisdiction in the troubled region.
They did that last month, saying that the court’s jurisdiction extended to territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
The Palestinian Authority welcomed Wednesday’s move.
“This long-awaited step serves Palestine’s vigorous effort to achieve justice and accountability as indispensable bases for peace,” the Palestinian foreign ministry said.
It called for concluding the investigation quickly because “the crimes committed by the occupation’s leaders against the Palestinian people are lasting, systematic and far-reaching”.
The Palestinians joined the court in 2015 and have long pushed for an investigation of Israel, which is not a member of the court.
The Palestinians asked the court to investigate Israeli actions during its 2014 war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, as well as Israel’s construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
Israeli officials have accused the court in the past of overstepping its bounds, saying the Palestinians are not an independent sovereign state.
Officials say that Israel has been unfairly singled out and reject the allegations.
They say military actions in Gaza were acts of self-defence and the status of the West Bank is disputed and must be resolved through negotiations.
The Israeli foreign minister accused the court of “emboldening terrorist organisations and anti-Semitic groups”.
He said the decision “will only further polarise Israelis and Palestinians and distance them from the very dialogue needed to resolve the conflict between them”.
But Ms Bensouda said there was a “reasonable basis to proceed and there are admissible potential cases”.
Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Israeli think tank, said the court’s investigation “is entirely unjustified – and predictable, given its longstanding lawless bias against the Jewish state”.
Israel has also argued that its military justice system is independent and capable of investigating itself.
The ICC was set up to deal with crimes in countries where authorities were unable or unwilling to launch meaningful prosecutions.
The Palestinians and human rights groups say Israel’s military justice system is biased and routinely whitewashes abuses by soldiers.
It is likely the investigation will also look into alleged crimes by Palestinian militants.
The prosecutor has said her investigation would look into the actions of Hamas, which fired rockets indiscriminately into Israel during the 2014 war.
Israel blames Hamas and other militant groups for Palestinian war casualties, saying the militants use residential areas as cover to launch rockets and leave the military no choice but to strike back.
Hamas welcomed the initiation of the investigation and called on Ms Bensouda to “resist any pressure” that could scuttle the process.
“This is a step forward to implement justice, punish the occupation and do justice to the Palestinian people,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told the Associated Press.
Ms Bensouda said how prosecutors prioritised their work would be “determined in due time” based on constraints including the coronavirus pandemic, limited resources and their existing heavy workload.
“Such challenges, however, as daunting and complex as they are, cannot divert us from ultimately discharging the responsibilities that the Rome Statute places upon the Office,” she said, referring to the court’s founding treaty.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the ICC’s war crimes investigation.
In a videotaped statement, Mr Netanyahu accused the court of “hypocrisy and anti-Semitism” and vowed to “fight for the truth”.