The Palestinian foreign minister on Tuesday called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) “to open an immediate investigation” into allegations of war crimes and apartheid against the Palestinian people.
Amid rising tensions with Israel, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki met for an hour with the ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda at the tribunal in The Hague, “to refer the situation in Palestine” to her office.
It was an “important and historic step” for the Palestinian people “who have suffered for generations the consequences of crimes committed with impunity by Israeli officials”, he told reporters afterwards.
The ICC launched a preliminary probe in 2015 into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Israel and the Palestinian territories, in the wake of the Gaza war.
Despite a visit to the region, the tribunal has yet to move to the next stage and open a full-blown investigation which could possibly lead to charges being brought. Bensouda said however in a statement that it had “made important progress”.
Maliki insisted there was “insurmountable” evidence of crimes, adding those “responsible … must be held accountable for their actions without further delay”.
The meeting at the ICC comes after more than 60 Palestinians protesting the US decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem were killed by Israeli fire last week.
Maliki said the Palestinian move was “due to the intensification of the rate and the severity of the crimes against our people”, including the targeting of “unarmed protestors in the Gaza Strip”.
The Palestinian referral highlighted the issue of settlements, which the delegation termed in a statement “the single most dangerous threat to Palestinian lives and livelihoods”.
“Israel maintains, expands and protects the settlement regime by committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people,” the statement added.
Amid much controversy, the Palestinian Authority joined the ICC in January 2015 signing up to the Rome Statute, which underpins the world’s only permanent war crimes court.
‘Violence must stop’
Israel is not a member of the ICC however, and the Israeli foreign ministry on Tuesday said it “takes a severe view” of the referral, which it called “a cynical step without legal validity”.
“The ICC lacks jurisdiction over the Israeli-Palestinian issue, since Israel is not a member of the court and because the Palestinian Authority is not a state,” the Israeli ministry added in a statement.
It called on Bensouda “not to yield to Palestinian pressure” and to deny “Palestinian efforts to politicise the court”.
Bensouda confirmed she had received the referral and said in her statement she had “to consider issues of jurisdiction, admissibility and the interests of justice” in deciding what to do.
It is the eighth time a state party to the court has directly referred a situation to her, she said, warning that a direct referral “does not automatically lead to the opening of an investigation.”
Rights groups urged Bensouda to take up the challenge and move to the next step.
“The recent killings in Gaza only underscore the importance of the ICC prosecutor acting to address the pervasive climate of impunity in Palestine,” said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.
Bensouda vowed last week that she was watching the unrest in Gaza closely and would “take any action warranted” to prosecute crimes. “The violence must stop,” she told AFP.