THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court launched a preliminary probe Friday that could clear the way for a full-scale investigation into possible war crimes in Palestinian territories — plunging the court into the most politically charged conflict it has ever tackled.
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement she will conduct the preliminary examination with "full independence and impartiality."
Potential cases Bensouda could take on include allegations of war crimes by Israel during last summer's Gaza war where the Palestinians suffered heavy civilian casualties. Israel's settlement construction on occupied Palestinian lands could also be examined.
The cases could also include alleged war crimes by Hamas, which controls Gaza, including the firing of thousands of rockets at Israeli residential areas from crowded neighborhoods.
The prosecutor's announcement comes after the Palestinian Authority acceded to The Hague-based court's founding treaty and recognized its jurisdiction dating back to July, the eve of the last Gaza war. That move opened the door to an ICC investigation that could target possible crimes by both Israel, which is not a member of the court, and Palestinians.
A preliminary examination is not an investigation, but weighs information about possible crimes and jurisdiction issues to establish whether a full investigation is merited.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki welcomed the move and said the Palestinian Authority would cooperate.
"The Palestinian people called upon us to go to court and ask for an investigation and therefore we consider the announcement today as a historic event," he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the decision and its timing.
"It is scandalous that just a few days after terrorists slaughtered Jews in France, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court opens a probe against the state of Israel because we protected our citizens against Hamas, a terror organization that is in a covenant with the Palestinian Authority, and whose war criminals fired thousands of rockets at civilians in Israel," Netanyahu said. "Unfortunately it turns the International Criminal Court into part of the problem and not part of the solution."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized the probe as stemming "entirely from political and anti-Israel considerations" and said he would recommend not cooperating.
Israel has accused Hamas, the Islamic militant group sworn to Israel's destruction that rules Gaza, of using Palestinian civilians as human shields by launching rockets and carrying out other attacks from within crowded neighborhoods, while purposely attacking civilians in Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed documents to join the ICC a day after the U.N. Security Council rejected a resolution Dec. 30 that would have set a three-year deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state on lands occupied by Israel.
Joining the ICC is part of a broader Palestinian strategy to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the occupied territories and agreeing to Palestinian statehood. Abbas had been under heavy domestic pressure to take stronger action against Israel after the 50-day war between the Jewish state and militants in Gaza over the summer, tensions over holy sites in Jerusalem and the failure of the last round of U.S.-led peace talks.
Israel retaliated to the Palestinian move to join the ICC by freezing the transfer of more than $100 million a month in taxes it collects for the Palestinians.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said the court's action as "counterproductive to the cause of peace."
"It is a tragic irony that Israel, which has withstood thousands of terrorist rockets fired at its civilians and its neighborhoods, is now being scrutinized by the ICC. The place to resolve the differences between the parties is through direct negotiations, not unilateral actions by either side," Jeff Rathke, the director of the State Department's office of press relations, said in the statement.
Bensouda cast the decision to open a preliminary probe as procedural following the Palestinians' recognition of the court. It is unclear how long the preliminary examination might take. Bensouda said "there are no timelines" set in the court's founding treaty.
The prosecutor is currently conducting eight preliminary examinations in Honduras, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Guinea and Nigeria. Some have been going on for years.
Judges at the court must approve any request by the prosecution office for a full investigation.
Richard Dicker, head of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, said the preliminary probe, "is potentially a step toward reducing impunity in a conflict that has left thousands of victims without justice. As the prosecutor's office determines whether a formal investigation is warranted, we expect that it will scrutinize alleged crimes impartially regardless of the perpetrators. Other countries should refrain from politicizing the examination, and let the prosecutor do her job."
Established in 2002, the court has struggled to live up to high expectations that it would end impunity for high-ranking perpetrators of atrocities in conflicts around the globe.
It has completed only three trials, ending in two convictions and an acquittal, all of rebel leaders from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The court has no police force to secure crime scenes, gather evidence and arrest suspects and has repeatedly had trouble gaining custody of indicted suspects such as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged with genocide in the conflict-torn Darfur region of his country.
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.