The Hague, Netherlands | AFP |
A delegation from the world’s only permanent war crimes court is visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories this week, the chief prosecutor said Wednesday, against the backdrop of a probe into the 2014 Gaza war.
The trip from Wednesday until October 10 will be the first to the region by officials from the prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court (ICC) since the conflict.
But chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda was quick to stress the trip was “not linked” to her preliminary examination into the war launched last year which “is ongoing”.
The team will travel to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah, Bensouda said in a statement and hold “meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials at the working levels.”
But she made no mention of whether the delegation would travel to the impoverished Gaza Strip.
At the request of the Palestinians, Bensouda’s office opened an initial probe into alleged war crimes by both sides during the July-August 2014 conflict.
Some 2,251 Palestinians, including 551 children, were killed in fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas and other factions, according to UN figures.
On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, mostly soldiers.
“Not to visit the Gaza is an insult to the victims of Israeli terrorism,” said Fawzy Barhoum, the spokesperson for Hamas in Gaza.
“The delegation should do its duty and travel to Gaza to see the scene of the crime, to hear from witnesses and to understand the reality of Israeli crimes against Gaza’s civilians,” he told AFP.
But Bensouda, who is believed not to be accompanying the team, said the aim of the “visit will be to undertake outreach and education activities with a view to raising awareness about the ICC and in particular, about the work of the office”.
The delegation “will not engage in evidence collection in relation to any alleged crimes,” she added.
“Neither will the delegation undertake site visits, or assess the adequacy of the respective legal systems to deal with crimes that fall within ICC jurisdiction.”
Israel and the Palestinians have traded accusations of war crimes, and Bensouda said the initial probe working to see if there is enough evidence to merit a full investigation involved “a number of complex legal issues and a review of large volumes of documents.”
She asked that her office be given the “necessary space and time to conduct its activities… independently and impartially.”
Israel is alleged to have used force indiscriminately in Gaza in 2014, while Hamas is accused of firing rockets at Israeli civilian population centres and of using Palestinians as human shields.
The Palestinians formally asked the ICC last year to investigate the Jewish state, which is not a party to the treaty that governs the court, for alleged war crimes.
Israel vehemently opposes any ICC investigation, but officials have said they will cooperate with the body to convince it of the competence of the state’s own courts.
The ICC team will also visit UN agencies, and intends to give television and newspaper interviews in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The ICC was set up in 2002 to investigate and try those responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, where national authorities cannot or will not prosecute.