U.S. has 'serious concerns' about ICC ruling on Israel war crime probe

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Henry Austin and Adela Suliman and Lawahez Jabari and Paul Goldman
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The United States has "serious concerns" about an International Criminal Court ruling which paves the way for a prosecutor to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories, a State Department spokesman said late Friday.

"We do not believe the Palestinians qualify as a sovereign state, and therefore are not qualified to obtain membership as a state or participate as a state in international organizations, entities, or conferences including the ICC," Ned Price said in a statement.

"We have serious concerns about the ICC's attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel," he added.

In a 60-page ruling published on Friday, the court said its jurisdiction extended to territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, appearing to pave the way for its chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to open an investigation into Israel's military actions in Gaza, as well as Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

Bensouda said in 2019 there was a "reasonable basis" to open a war crimes probe, but she asked the court to determine whether she had territorial justification before proceeding with the case. She named both the Israel Defense Forces and armed Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, as possible perpetrators.

In a majority ruling published Friday night, the judges said yes.

The Palestinians joined the court in 2015. They asked it to look into Israeli actions during a 2014 war in the Gaza Strip. As well as Israel's construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem — the international community widely considers the settlements to be illegal under international law.

Image: Golan Heights (AFP via Getty Images)
Image: Golan Heights (AFP via Getty Images)

However, the court could also potentially investigate crimes committed by Palestinian militants, including the firing of rockets at civilian areas by Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the Gaza Strip and has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and others.

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The decision was denounced in a video statement by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"When the ICC investigates Israel for fake war crimes, this is pure antisemitism ... We will fight this perversion of justice with all our might," he said.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was a "historic day for the principle of accountability," while Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, described the decision as "an important development that contributes in protecting the Palestinian people."

The U.S., like Israel, does not recognize the court's jurisdiction and last year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against its officials. It also revoked prosecutor Bensouda's visa, in response to the court's attempts to prosecute American troops for actions in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration has said it will review those sanctions.

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 war, territories the Palestinians want for a future state. The judges said the jurisdiction decision does not imply any attempt to determine Palestinian statehood, which is uncertain, or national borders.

While the court would have a difficult time prosecuting Israelis, it could issue arrest warrants that would make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel abroad. A case in the court could also be deeply embarrassing to the Israeli government.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.