The Palestinian Authority and Hamas welcomed the International Criminal Court’s announcement on Wednesday of an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
It is "a long-awaited step that serves Palestine's tireless pursuit of justice and accountability, which are indispensable pillars of the peace the Palestinian people seek and deserve", the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said of the investigation into Israel and the Islamist militant group Hamas in a statement.
ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s statement said the investigation would examine events beginning in mid-June of 2014, the beginning of the buildup to that summer’s seven-week war between Israel and Hamas.
Her statement has plunged the court into the midst of one of the most fraught conflicts of the past half century, drawing harsh criticism from Israel. Bensouda said the investigation will be conducted “independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor.”
Hamas defended its own actions. "We welcome the ICC decision to investigate Israeli occupation war crimes against our people," Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told Reuters. "It is a step forward on the path of achieving justice."
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"Our resistance is legitimate, and it comes to defend our people. All international laws approve legitimate resistance,” said Qassem.
The Palestinians joined the court in 2015 and have long pushed for an investigation of Israel, which is not a member of the court.
The decision in effect turns the court's focus on two key Israeli policies of recent years: its repeated military operations against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, highlighted by a devastating 2014 war, and its expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
If the investigation identifies suspects allegedly responsible for crimes, prosecutors can ask judges to issue international arrest warrants, which can remain under seal to help authorities apprehend those charged.
Israel has also argued that its military justice system is independent and capable of investigating itself. The ICC was set up to deal with crimes in countries where authorities are unable or unwilling to launch meaningful prosecutions.
The Palestinians and human rights groups say Israel’s military justice system is biased and routinely whitewashes abuses by soldiers.
Rights group B'Tselem also said in a statement the decision "is a necessary step, following decades in which Israel committed – and continues to commit – crimes with impunity."
Human Rights Watch welcomed the court's move as a step toward justice for Israeli and Palestinian victims.
“The court’s crowded docket shouldn’t deter the prosecutor’s office from doggedly pursuing cases against anyone credibly implicated in such crimes,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.
“All eyes will also be on the next prosecutor Karim Khan to pick up the baton and expeditiously move forward while demonstrating firm independence in seeking to hold even the most powerful to account,” Jarrah added. "ICC member countries should stand ready to fiercely protect the court’s work from any political pressure.”
Sami Abou Shahadeh, a Knesset member with the Arab-majority Joint List, said welcomed the "historic" move, which he said "represents a mandatory step for any meaningful solution. Impunity can only advance crimes, justice can only advance peace. All governments should cooperate and reject any attempts at obstructing the work of the court."
Hagar Shezaf and The Associated Press contributed to this article.