The International Criminal Court on Friday paved the way for a prosecutor to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
In a 60-page ruling, the court said its jurisdiction had expanded to include areas occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War and appeared to pave the way for its Attorney General Fatou Bensouda to open an investigation into Israeli military actions in Gaza as well Settlement activity in the West Bank.
Bensouda said in 2019 that there was “a reasonable basis” to open a war crimes investigation, but she asked the court to see if she had territorial justification before proceeding with the case.
She named both the Israeli armed forces and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.
In a majority decision published on Friday evening, the judges said yes.
“The Court’s territorial jurisdiction over the situation in Palestine … extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem,” they said.
The Palestinians, who joined the court in 2015, asked it to investigate Israeli actions against Palestinian militants in Gaza during the 2014 war, as well as Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem.
Download the NBC News App for breaking news and politics
Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, areas that the Palestinians want for their future state. Around 700,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians and much of the international community consider the settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace.
Nabil Shaath, a senior advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed the decision, saying the verdict was “good news and the next step is to open an official investigation into Israel’s crimes against our people.”
However, the court could potentially also investigate crimes committed by Palestinian militants, including the launching of rockets on civilian areas by Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip and labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and others. Other armed groups could also be investigated.
While the court would find it difficult to prosecute Israelis, it could issue arrest warrants that would make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel abroad. A case in court would also be deeply embarrassing for the government.
Israel, which is not a member of the court, has said it has no jurisdiction despite the international community generally viewing the settlements as illegal under international law.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that the court’s decision “violated the right of democracies to defend themselves against terrorism and played into the hands of those who have undermined efforts to expand the peace circle”.
The US, like Israel, does not recognize the jurisdiction of the court and last year the Trump administration imposed sanctions on its officials. The US also revoked Bensouda’s visa in response to attempts by the court to prosecute American troops for actions in Afghanistan.
The Biden government has announced that it will review these sanctions.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Paul Goldman and Lawahez Jabari contributed.