Hamas Welcomes ICC Probe Into Possible War Crimes in Palestinian Territories

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Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh releases a dove during a rally commemorating the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movement’s creation, in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp, December 12, 2014.Credit: AFP

Hamas said on Saturday it welcomed a decision by the International Criminal Court to launch an inquiry into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories.

ICC prosecutors said on Friday the preliminary examination would scrutinize "in full independence and impartiality" crimes that may have occurred since June 13 last year, opening a path to possible charges against Israelis or Palestinians.

The court's decision came after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a rival to Hamas, requested ICC membership, against strong opposition from Israel and the United States.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip, said on Saturday the Islamist group appreciated the move.

"What is needed now is to quickly take practical steps in this direction and we are ready to provide (the court) with thousands of reports and documents that confirm the Zionist enemy has committed horrible crimes against Gaza and against our people," he said in a statement.

The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, responded with relative restraint to the ICC's decision, saying on Saturday that the move was important and essential and that the Palestinian leadership will fully cooperate with the tribunal in its just mission.

President Mahmoud Abbas' office didn't release an official response, while the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said the tribunal's decision was a positive step toward upholding justice and international law.

In a statement, the Palestinians said that they had turned to UN bodies and to the ICC in order to put an end to the war crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. "The state of Palestine will continue to bring those who committed these crimes to international justice, and will not allow them to escape punishment," the statement said.

Palestinian officials estimate that the PA chose a restrained response so as not to damage the steps being taken to submit a new resolution to the UN Security Council calling for recognition of the 1967 borders and an end to the occupation within a fixed timeframe.

Some Palestinian sources said several Arab countries are pressuring the PA not to turn to the Security Council at this time, for fear the right wing in Israel will draw strength from such a move right before the elections.

The Arab League has accepted the Palestinian request to establish a joint Arab committee in order to ensure a majority among the Security Council members for the renewed bid. The committee will include Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi and UNSC member Jordan.

Abbas has said that the Palestinian leadership will adhere to the committee's decisions - a statement that seems to refer to the criticism by some Arab countries that the UN bid was hasty.

The most urgent issue for the Palestinian leadership, however, remains the economic crisis following Israel's freeze on tax revenues and the fear of additional U.S. sanctions. The Palestinians have demanded the Arab League make good on its pledge to provide $100 million a month to the PA in case Israel stops the flow of all money.

U.S.: decision 'a tragic irony'

Israel rejected the court's Friday decision as hypocrisy and the U.S. State Department said it was "a tragic irony that Israel, which has withstood thousands of terrorist rockets fired at its civilians and its neighborhoods, is now being scrutinized by the ICC."

The June 13 date would allow the court to look at the war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza in July-August 2014 during which more than 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis were killed.

Prosecutors will assess evidence of alleged crimes and determine if they are of sufficient gravity and scale to warrant charges against individuals on either side.

Earlier on Saturday, U.S. State Department said it "strongly disagrees" with the International Criminal Court's launching of an inquiry into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories late on Friday.

The United States has argued that Palestine is not a state and therefore not eligible to join the ICC.

"We strongly disagree with the ICC prosecutor's action," spokesman Jeff Rathke said in a statement. "The place to resolve the differences between the parties is through direct negotiation, not unilateral actions by either side."

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