THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki asked prosecutors at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday to launch a full investigation into accusations of Israeli human rights abuses on Palestinian territory, saying the evidence was “insurmountable”.
Maliki submitted a so-called “referral”, giving the prosecutor at the Hague-based court the legal basis to move beyond a preliminary inquiry started in January 2015.
The International Criminal Court has the authority to hear cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity committed on the territory of the 123 countries that have signed up to it. Israel has not joined the court, but because the Palestinians have, Israelis could be targeted for crimes committed on Palestinian lands.
Israel rejected Tuesday’s move as “legally invalid”, saying the court lacks jurisdiction because the Palestinian Authority is not a state and Israel abides by international law.
“The Palestinians continue to exploit the court for political purposes, rather than work towards resuming the peace process with Israel,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“It is absurd that the Palestinian actions vis-à-vis the court come at a time when the Palestinians continue to incite to acts of terrorism,” it said.
The court’s prosecutors launched an initial investigation into allegations against Israel when the Palestinians first joined the court in 2015. Tuesday’s referral allows that probe to proceed to the next stage of a full investigation, without waiting for a judge to give approval.
“A referral... does not automatically lead to the opening of an investigation,” chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement. “There should be no doubt that in this and any other situation currently before my office, I will always take the decision warranted by my mandate.”
Harvard legal expert Alex Whiting, a former ICC prosecutor, said on Twitter that the referral “has a real effect. ..it is much harder for the office of the prosecutor to stay in the preliminary investigation phase for years”.
Maliki said the request would give prosecutors the authority to investigate alleged crimes starting in 2014 and beyond, including last week’s deaths during protests in Gaza.
“We believe there is ample and insurmountable evidence to that effect and we believe that proceeding with an investigation is the right and needed course of action,” he said.
“Through judicial referral we want... the office of the prosecutor to open without delay an investigation into all crimes,” he told journalists.
The ICC, which opened in July 2002, is a court of last resort, only stepping in when a state is unwilling or unable to investigate crimes on its territory.
Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Toby Sterling; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in JERUSALEM; Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Gareth Jones