Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court said on Friday they had opened a preliminary inquiry into possible war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank, the first formal step that could lead to charges against Israelis or Palestinians.
On January 1, a day before requesting ICC membership, the Palestinian Authority asked the prosecutors to investigate alleged crimes committed on territories under Palestinian control since June 13, 2014, the date on which Israel began its latest offensive in the Gaza Strip.
The 51-day Israeli assault on Gaza left at least 2,300 Palestinians dead, at least 70 percent of them civilians, and 96,000 houses destroyed. Reconstruction hasn’t started in the besieged enclave, leaving thousands vulnerable to elecricity cuts, water shortages and harsh winter weather.
“The office will conduct its analysis in full independence and impartiality,” the prosecution office said in a statement, adding that it was a matter of “policy and practice” to open a preliminary examination after receiving such a referral.
“The case is now in the hands of the court,” said Nabil Abuznaid, head of the Palestinian delegation in The Hague. “It is a legal matter now and we have faith in the court system.”
Israel denounced the ICC’s “scandalous” decision.
The sole purpose of the preliminary examination is to “try to harm Israel’s right to defend itself from terror,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement.
He said the decision was “solely motivated by political anti-Israel considerations,” adding that he would recommend against cooperating with the probe.
On January 3, Israel froze the transfer of $127 million in tax funds it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for its application to join the ICC.
Israel has repeatedly delayed payments to the Palestinians to signal its displeasure with measures to achieve statehood and get accountability for Israeli war crimes.
It did so in 2012, after they won a UN vote recognizing Palestine as a non-member state. And it employed the tactic twice in 2011 – after PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced reconciliation with Hamas and after the Palestinians won admission to UNESCO.
A preliminary examination, which could take many years, involves prosecutors assessing the strength of evidence of alleged crimes, whether the court has jurisdiction and how the “interests of justice” would best be served.
Only if that led to a full investigation could charges be brought against officials on either the Israeli or Palestinian side of the conflict.
An initial inquiry could lead to war crimes charges against Israel, whether relating to last conflict in Gaza or Israel’s 47-year-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It also exposes the Palestinians to prosecution, possibly for rocket attacks by resistance groups operating out of Gaza.