13:03 GMT18 April 2021
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    Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the International Criminal Court of "pure anti-Semitism" after The Hague-based tribunal approved in principle a probe into alleged war crimes in Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories.

    The International Criminal Court has opened a formal probe into alleged war crimes committed in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, Fatou Bensouda, the ICC's chief prosecutor, said in a statement Wednesday.

    "Today, I confirm the initiation by the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court of an investigation respecting the situation in Palestine," Bensouda said.

    The prosecutor specified that the probe would "cover crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court that are alleged to have been committed in the Situation since 13 June 2014, the date to which reference is made in the Referral of the Situation to my Office."

    Bensouda emphasised that in accordance with the ICC's founding principles, investigations undertaken by her office are "conducted independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favour," and "cover all facts and evidence relevant to an assessment" on whether criminal activity has taken place.

    The decision to undertake the investigation was made after carrying out what the prosecutor called a "painstaking preliminary examination" that took place over nearly five years in coordination with representatives from both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    Israel Slams Decision, PA Welcomes Move

    The Palestinian Authority welcomed the ICC's decision, with its foreign ministry calling it a "long-awaited step that serves Palestine's tireless pursuit of justice and accountability, which are indispensable pillars of the peace the Palestinian people seek and deserve."

    Palestinian political and militant group Hamas, a possible co-defendent in the investigation, announced Wednesday that it also welcomes the probe, and defended its own actions as "legitimate resistance." 

    "We welcome the ICC decision to investigate Israeli occupation war crimes against our people. It is a step forward on the path of achieving justice for the victims of our people," Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Reuters. "Our resistance is legitimate, and it comes to defend our people. All international laws approve legitimate resistance," the spokesman added.

    Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi blasted the new investigation, however, characterizing it as "an act of moral and legal bankruptcy" on the ICC's part.

    "The decision to open an investigation against Israel is an exception to the mandate of the tribunal, and a waste of the international community's resources by a biased institution that has lost all legitimacy," Ashkenazi said.

    Prime Minister Netanyahu called the probe "anti-Semitic" and promised that Tel Aviv would fight "with all its might" to protect "the truth" and the country's soldiers.

    "The State of Israel is under attack this evening," Netanyahu said. "The international court based in The Hague reached a decision which is the essence of anti-Semitism," he added.

    The start of the investigation comes after a decision by the ICC's pre-trial chamber in February that the court has the authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and that there was "a reasonable basis" to believe that war crimes "have been or are being committed in the West Bank" by Israel and Hamas.

    Israeli authorities blasted the earlier ruling, with Netanyahu accusing the court of "pure anti-Semitism" and slamming the ICC's push to investigate what called "fake war crimes." Benny Gantz, Israel's defence minister and junior partner in the Netanyahu-led government, similarly slammed the February ruling, calling its "grave" charges "unfounded" and promising to "act resolutely" to protect the Israeli military's commanders and soldiers.

    Bensouda's announcement follows reports of an intense Israeli diplomatic campaign aimed at Tel Aviv's allies to convey a "discreet message" to the prosecutor to attempt to pressure her not to proceed with a formal investigation.

    The Biden administration expressed concerns over the probe, indicating that Israel is not a party to the Rome Statute - the ICC's founding treaty. A State Department spokesman said Washington would "continue to uphold President Biden's strong commitment to Israel and its security, including opposing sanctions that seek to target Israel unfairly."

    Last week, Axios reported that Netanyahu had asked Biden to keep in place sanctions imposed on ICC officials by his predecessor's administration.

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