The International Criminal Court paved the way Friday for a prosecutor to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
In a 60-page ruling, 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 the Gaza Strip, 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 Court’s territorial jurisdiction in 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, have asked it to look into Israeli actions during its 2014 war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, as well as Israel’s construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
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Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 war, territories the Palestinians want for their future state. Some 700,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians and much of the international community view the settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace.
Welcoming the decision, Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the ruling was “good news, and the next step is to launch an official investigation into Israel’s crimes against our people.”
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 United States and others. Other armed groups could also be probed.
While the court would have a hard time prosecuting Israelis, it could issue arrest warrants that would make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel abroad. A case in the court would also be deeply embarrassing to the government.
Israel, which is not a member of the court, has said it has no jurisdiction, although the international community widely considers the settlements to be illegal under international law.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement the court’s decision “violated the right of democracies to defend themselves against terrorism, and played into the hands of those who undermined efforts to expand the circle of peace.”
The U.S., like Israel, does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and last year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against its officials. The U.S. also revoked 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.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Paul Goldman and Lawahez Jabari contributed.