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International Criminal Court Urges Israel and Palestine To Provide Information on Alleged War Crimes

The ICC is deciding whether to open an investigation into alleged war crimes during last summer's bloody conflict in Gaza, in which at least 1,500 Palestinian and six Israeli civilians were killed.

by Harriet Salem
May 13 2015, 5:35pm

Photo by Rebecca Vassie/AP

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor has warned Israel if it does not provide information for a preliminary probe into alleged war crimes probe she may be forced to launch a full-scale investigation using only "one side of the story."

The ICC began looking into alleged violations of rules of war during last summer's bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip in January 2015, after Palestine accepted the court's jurisdiction. Palestine became a formal member of the ICC on April 1 with the express aim of pursuing a prosecution of Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

More than 2,200 Gazans were killed in 50 days of fighting after Israel launched an offensive last summer, including at least 1,500 civilians. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians were killed.

Related: Israel Vows to Ramp Up Gaza Offensive as Civilian Death Toll Rises

In a Tuesday night interview with the Associated Press the ICC's Fatou Bensouda said her office was "making attempts" to contact the Israelis and was "reaching out" to the Palestinians who had not yet provided the necessary information either.

Emphasizing that evidence gathered by the court would be evaluated in an "independent and impartial way devoid of any political considerations," Bensouda, a 55-year-old multiple award-winning Gambian lawyer, said that full disclosure was in the "best interests" of both parties.

The aim of an ICC preliminary probe is to gather reliable information about the nature of the war crime allegations in question — such as how grave the alleged crimes are and whether or not they come under the court's jurisdiction — in order to establish whether a full-scale investigation should be launched. 

Speaking to VICE News, Palestinian Liberation Organization spokesman Xavier Abu Eid said paperwork preparations were already well underway. "We have deployed extraordinary efforts in collecting materials, from policy advisers to legal experts," he said. "The state of Palestine will present its evidences on due time to the court."

Related: Amnesty Says Israel's Attacks on Civilians During Gaza Offensive Amounted to 'War Crimes'

Both sides have already come under fire from human rights groups for their wartime conduct. Two reports in late 2014 concluded that Israeli army had carried out "indiscriminate bombing" of populated areas, while a later investigation by Amnesty International concluded Hamas fighters had shown a "flagrant disregard for lives of civilians" by firing into indiscriminately civilian areas in southern Israel.

The NGO also said Palestinian militants violated humanitarian law by storing rockets and other munitions in civilian buildings, including United Nations schools and other locations close to shelters for people displaced by the conflict.

Israel has also faced criticism from within its own army. On May 5 a controversial report released by Breaking The Silence, an Israeli NGO founded by former officers, accused the military of multiple wartime abuses. Citing accounts of 60 anonymous soldiers that fought during the July and August "Operation Protective Edge" the report details extremely permissive rules of engagement including orders to: "Open fire, open fire everywhere."

The army has refused to comment on the specific allegations leveled by Breaking The Silence but said while it "was committed to investigating all credible claims properly" the NGO had "refused to provide the Israeli Defense Forces with proof." The report was also criticized by Israeli media for concealing the identities of the soldiers.

At present it is unclear how long the preliminary stage of the ICC's enquiries will take. Past experiences show the timeline for proceedings vary drastically from case to case; for example while the court's initial probe into war crimes in Libya was very short, in Afghanistan the same process is currently in its eighth year.

"It's really difficult to say this is going to take two months or three months, or one year or 10 years," said Bensouda, adding that issues other than the Gaza war, such as Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands, might also be subject to inquiry.

Related: In Photos: The Conflict's Deadliest Day as Israel Intensifies Ground Offensive in Gaza

As well as its ICC membership, the Palestinian Authority is also seeking to pursue Israel through other bureaucratic means of resistance. At a FIFA Congress due to be held in two weeks time the Palestinian Football Association will propose a vote on suspending Israel from international contests, as punishment for restrictions imposed on Palestinian players' movements between West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

"We believe this is the best way to achieve our goals," Abu Eid told VICE News. "Palestinians didn't write the UN Charter, the Rome Statute, the Geneva Conventions or the FIFA regulations. We are simply asking for laws to be applicable for everyone." 

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem