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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Palestinians file ICC request for probe of Israeli crimes

Riyad Al Maliki arrived at The Hague to demand investigation on Israeli settlements

A view of the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit on February 14, 2018. Menahem Kahana / AFP
A view of the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit on February 14, 2018. Menahem Kahana / AFP

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al Maliki has filed a request at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecutors to open an "immediate investigation" into Israeli crimes in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The move came as hopes of Israeli-Palestinian peace reached their lowest ebb after the United States relocated its embassy to the contested city of Jerusalem last week.

Palestinian officials have cut off all dialogue with President Donald Trump's government and have maintained minimal contact with Israel since talks broke down four years ago.

Mr Al Maliki said he had filed for an investigation into Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and included the recent bloodshed in Gaza, where Israeli forces shot dead more than 100 protesters, including children, over several rounds of weekly protests.

According to a Palestinian statement, the so-called referral that Mr Al Maliki handed to the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, on Tuesday underscored "that there is sufficient compelling evidence of the ongoing commission of grave crimes to warrant an immediate investigation".

Mr Al Maliki was accompanied by a police escort and ushered into the ICC, where he was met by court officials at the door. He did not say anything upon entering but after submitting the request he said it would be an important test of the ICC's accountability.

The ICC has been conducting a preliminary investigation since 2015 into alleged crimes in the West Bank and Gaza, including Israel's settlement policy and crimes allegedly committed by both sides in the 2014 Gaza conflict in which more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed, according to United Nations figures.

"The referral covers past, present, and future Israeli actions to promote, expand, and entrench the settlement regime, perpetrated by, or with the assistance of, the government of Israel or its agents and accomplices in the occupied territory of the State of Palestine, including East Jerusalem," the Palestinian statement said.

The request could give the court a wider remit to investigate alleged crimes in the region.

Israel said it took a "severe view" of the Palestinian request and called on the ICC to reject the "cynical step". The Israeli foreign ministry said that "Israel expects the ICC and its prosecutor not to yield to Palestinian pressure, and stand firm against continued Palestinian efforts to politicise the court and to derail it from its mandate".

Israel has refused to become a member of the court, but its citizens can face charges if they are suspected of committing crimes on a territory of one of its members. The body accepted Palestine as a member state in 2014. The Palestinians first filed against Israel at the court in June 2015.

Any charges would need to be enforced by member states, as the court does not have a law enforcement arm and can only indict suspects. Israel, if it wanted any charges filed against Palestinians, would have to become a member of the court.

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The majority of the international community considers Israeli settlements to be illegal under international law. It is illegal to transfer populations out of or into occupied territory. More than 600,000 Israelis live in Jewish outposts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel withdrew its settlements and some 8,000 settlers from Gaza in 2005.

The Palestinians believe the settlement case to be their strongest to take to the ICC. In 2004, the International Court of Justice, the UN's highest, ruled in an advisory opinion that the settlements breached international law. It is a ruling that the ICC can take into account.

Right-wing religious Israelis view the West Bank as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. The Israeli military captured the territory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and claimed the territory is not occupied as it was captured from Jordan.

The decision to file a case at the ICC is part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's wider diplomatic campaign against Israel that has sought to "internationalise the struggle". The Palestinians no longer view the US as an impartial broker in the conflict, and so they are seeking other avenues to bid for legitimacy and, ultimately, a sovereign state.

Mr Al Maliki travelled to the court as Mr Abbas remained in a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The 83-year-old heavy smoker was taken into the Istishari Hospital with a fever on Sunday days after undergoing ear surgery.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian leader was in "very good health" and that he would leave hospital in days.