JERUSALEM — The International Criminal Court announced Wednesday that it was opening an investigation into allegations of war crimes by Israel and Palestinian militant groups in territories occupied by Israel in 1967.
The decision, which infuriated many Israelis but was welcomed by the Palestinian leadership and its supporters, came six years after the court began a preliminary investigation of Israeli actions in the territories and just weeks after a ruling by the court that it had jurisdiction there.
The court’s outgoing chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement Wednesday that the investigation would cover crimes that were alleged to have been committed since June 13, 2014, shortly before the start of that summer’s devastating, 50-day Gaza war.
Some of Israel’s airstrikes during the war, which led to many Palestinian civilian deaths, are likely to be one focus of the inquiry, as is the indiscriminate rocket fire by Palestinian militant groups against Israeli civilian communities. Israel’s continued settlement construction will also come under scrutiny.
The court ruled that its areas of jurisdiction included the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
“To both Palestinian and Israeli victims and affected communities, we urge patience,” Bensouda’s statement read. It added, “Investigations take time, and they must be grounded objectively in facts and law.” Among the operational challenges the court faced, it said, were the pandemic, the limited resources available to it and its current heavy workload.
Israel is unlikely to cooperate formally with the inquiry or to allow investigators into the territories it controls, meaning that investigators will likely have to take testimony abroad.
Israel has accused the court, which is based in The Hague, in the Netherlands, of acting out of political motivation in the case and without valid legal basis. Palestinian leaders and human rights organizations have hailed the court’s efforts so far as a step toward justice for the victims.
A new prosecutor, Karim Khan, a British lawyer, will take over in June when Bensouda’s term ends. Khan is not necessarily bound by Bensouda’s decision. Lawyers familiar with the court and colleagues of Khan said they did not know Khan’s position on the case.
The Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “The crimes committed by officials of the occupying power against the Palestinian people are ongoing, systematic and widespread,” and urged a prompt conclusion of the investigation.
“This is a source of reassurance about the international legal and justice system,” said Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to Britain and a major proponent of the Palestinian effort to internationalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including by turning to the ICC. “For many years, international order has been incomplete, incapable and lagging behind, but we are finally seeing the international system undertake its responsibility to hold Israel accountable.”
Regarding the possibility of Palestinians also being investigated for war crimes, he said: “We are committed to international law, regulations and rules. Period. We have always wanted to end impunity with regard to Israel. So we will accept international law in full, and we will defend ourselves. International law can’t be subdivided.”
The court’s latest announcement comes as a diplomatic blow to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it in a video statement as “undiluted anti-Semitism and the height of hypocrisy.”
He described Israel as being “under attack” and pledged that “we will never stop fighting this injustice. We will speak the truth in every forum, in every country, on every stage until this outrageous decision is reversed and becomes null and void.”
The Israeli foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, a centrist and a former Army chief of staff, also denounced the prosecutor’s decision as “morally bankrupt and legally flawed.”
“This is a political decision made by a prosecutor at the end of her term in an attempt to dictate her successor’s priorities,” he said. “It turns the court into a tool in the hands of extremist actors and emboldens terrorist organizations and anti-Semitic groups.”
The United States joined Israel in rejecting the court’s ruling last month that it had jurisdiction in the case.
“The prosecutor is doing this in open defiance of the United States, which some may find frightening, but it will enhance the reputation of the court as a genuinely independent body,” said William Schabas, a former chairman of the United Nations Gaza Commission and a well-known expert on international law and professor at Middlesex University in London.
Though an investigation is likely to take time before resulting in any indictments, Israel is concerned, among other things, that at some point, many of its officials, former officials and commanders could be at risk of arrest when traveling abroad.
Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the decision “moves Israeli and Palestinian victims of serious crimes one step closer to obtaining a measure of justice that has for too long eluded them.”
She added, “ICC member countries should stand ready to fiercely protect the court’s work from any political pressure.”