Monday, April 22, 2024

ICC Prosecutor concludes first visit to Israel

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ICC Prosecutor, Karim A. A. Khan KC, concludes first visit to Israel and State of Palestine by an ICC Prosecutor: “We must show that the law is there, on the front lines, and that it is capable of protecting all”.

I have just concluded my first visit to Israel and the State of Palestine. During this mission, I had a simple message: my Office is here to ensure that the protection of the law is felt by all.

I am sincerely grateful for the warmth and openness shown by all those I met with during this visit. The clarity, compassion and courage that victims, in particular, in both Israel and Palestine, demonstrated in explaining their experiences were deeply impactful.  While not investigative in nature, this mission allowed me to listen to their accounts and deepen my understanding of what they experienced.

My visit to Israel was conducted at the request of family members and friends of Israeli citizens who were either killed or taken hostage by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups on 7 October 2023.  

In both Kibbutz Beeri and Kibbutz Kfar Azza, as well as at the site of the Nova Music Festival in Re’im, I witnessed scenes of calculated cruelty. The attacks against innocent Israeli civilians on 7 October represent some of the most serious international crimes that shock the conscience of humanity, crimes which the ICC was established to address. In my meeting with the families of the victims of these attacks, my message was clear: we stand ready to work in partnership with them as part of our ongoing work to hold those responsible to account.  I also stand ready to engage with relevant national authorities in line with the principle of complementarity at the heart of the Rome Statute. Such engagement, like my visit, would be without prejudice to the position of Israel on jurisdiction, and as a non-State Party to the Rome Statute.

I called for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages taken by Hamas and other terror organisations. There can be no justification for the holding of any hostages, and in particular the egregious breach of fundamental principles of humanity through the taking and continued holding of children. Hostages cannot be treated as human shields or bargaining chips.

During my visit to Ramallah, I had the honour to meet separately with their Excellencies President Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Mr. Mohammad Shtayeh, and Minister of Justice, Mr. Mohammad Shalaldeh.  I underlined to them that it was of real significance to me that this represented the first official visit by an ICC Prosecutor to the State of Palestine, and I expressed my sincere thanks for the official welcome that they provided. Our discussions were highly productive as we look to further deepen our cooperation under the Rome Statute.

I also spoke with the families of Palestinian victims. I was grateful to hear such personal accounts of their experiences in Gaza and the West Bank. We must never become numb to such suffering.

In relation to Gaza, and notwithstanding any ongoing violations of international humanitarian law by Hamas and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip, the manner in which Israel responds to these attacks is subject to clear legal parameters that govern armed conflict. Conflict in densely populated areas where fighters are alleged to be unlawfully embedded in the civilian population is inherently complex, but international humanitarian must still apply and the Israeli military knows the law that must be applied. 

As I have stated previously, Israel has trained lawyers who advise commanders and a robust system intended to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law. Credible allegations of crimes during the current conflict should be the subject of timely, independent examination and investigation. On this visit, I again stressed that the clear legal principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality must be complied with so that the protection of the law is rendered meaningful for those who need it. I emphasised that not only must the letter of the law be complied with, but also the spirit upheld.  International humanitarian law and the provisions of the Rome Statute are there to protect the most vulnerable.

On humanitarian access, the position is critical, and the law does not allow for doubt. The United Nations, the World Health Organization and the International Committee for the Red Cross and Red Crescent have continued to underline the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. As I have repeatedly emphasised, civilians must have access to basic food, water and desperately needed medical supplies, without further delay, and at pace and at scale.  And when such aid arrives, it must not be diverted or misused by Hamas. I cannot be more clear about this. All actors must comply with international humanitarian law. If you do not do so, do not complain when my Office is required to act.

I also, yet again, emphasised my profound concern with the significant increase in incidents of attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. I stated that no Israeli armed with an extreme ideology and a gun can feel they can act with impunity against Palestinian civilians. In Ramallah, I heard directly from those affected by such attacks. I underlined that we are continuing to investigate these incidents with focus and urgency. I wish to emphasise that all such attacks must cease immediately. No person should feel any sense of impunity for such attacks.

My Office will further intensify its efforts to advance its investigations in relation to this situation. In this work, we will rely on the partnership of all actors to ensure that when action is taken by my Office it is done on the basis of objective, verifiable evidence which can stand scrutiny in the courtroom and ensure that when we do proceed we have a realistic prospect of conviction.

It is my hope that this visit represents my first but not my last to both Israel and Palestine.  Even in this deeply troubling current context, I leave with some hope that the core of our collective humanity can survive this moment. That hope in fact stems from the words and kindness from the victims I met with in Israel and Palestine. It is they that our Office works to serve. At this time of significant turbulence, the law is needed more than ever.  I wish to emphasize that we are working intensively to ensure the law is protected and upheld, for all.

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