Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday lashed out at a decision by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to launch an initial investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories.
Netanyahu called the move by ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda “preposterous.”
The court announced Bensouda’s decision on Friday and said the “preliminary examination” was intended to determine if there were grounds for a full-scale war crimes investigation. The probe into “the situation in Palestine” could cover alleged violations of the laws of war by Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas during last summer’s conflict in the Gaza Strip, and could also examine Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The ICC said that “no timelines” had been set for the examination, which it described as standard practice after a state joins the court, a step the Palestinians took earlier this month.
The foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad Malki, welcomed the ICC probe, calling it “historic,” and a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza said it was an “important step” toward bringing Israelis before the international tribunal.
Netanyahu, who has vowed to defend Israeli soldiers against possible war crimes charges abroad, said that Israel “categorically rejects” the prosecutor’s move.
He tried to link the ICC decision to the terrorist attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which was claimed by al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaida’s branch in Yemen. Officials have reached no conclusions of what role AQAP actually had in the assault, which left 12 people dead. Five more people died in other attacks laid to a gunmen who said he was a member of the Islamic State.
“A few days after extremist Islamic terror carried out the massacre in France, the ICC prosecutor has decided to open an examination against Israel, which defends its citizens against Hamas, an extremist Islamic terror organization whose charter calls for massacring Jews wherever they are,” Netanyahu said.
The United States State Department also sharply criticized the ICC probe.
“We strongly disagree with the ICC prosecutor’s action,” spokesman Jeff Rathke said Friday. “It is a tragic irony that Israel, which has withstood thousands of terrorist rockets fired at its civilians and its neighborhoods, is now being scrutinized by the ICC.”
“The place to resolve the differences between the parties is through direct negotiations, not unilateral actions by either side,” Rathke added. “We will continue to oppose actions against Israel at the ICC as counterproductive to the cause of peace.”
The Palestinian Authority joined the ICC’s founding treaty this month as part of an effort to raise diplomatic pressure on Israel following the stalemate in efforts to renew peace talks.
Palestinian membership in the treaty, known as the Rome Statute, was made possible after the United Nations upgraded the Palestinians’ status in 2012 to a non-member observer state.
The United Nations has already appointed an inquiry commission to look into possible war crimes committed by both sides during the Gaza war last July and August, in which more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, according to the U.N. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel also died in the conflict.
In an effort to head off prosecution in international tribunals, the Israeli army has announced 13 criminal investigations into alleged misconduct by its troops during the Gaza campaign, and says it is is reviewing dozens of other cases.
CORRECTION: In an earlier versions, Prime Minister Netanyahu's quote referring to terror groups used the term "Islamist" in the second reference. It was actually "islamic" in both cases and has been corrected.