ICC opens inquiry into possible war crimes in Palestinian territories

AMSTERDAM (REUTERS) - Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) said on Friday they had opened a preliminary inquiry into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories, the first formal step that could lead to charges against Israelis or Palestinians.

On Jan 1, a day before requesting ICC membership, the Palestinian government asked the prosecutors to investigate alleged crimes committed on its territory since June 13, 2014, the date on which Israel began its latest offensive in Gaza.

"The office will conduct its analysis in full independence and impartiality," said the prosecution office in a statement, adding that it was a matter of "policy and practice" to open a preliminary examination after receiving such a referral.

"The case is now in the hands of the court," said Nabil Abuznaid, head of the Palestinian delegation in The Hague.

"It is a legal matter now and we have faith in the court system."

An Israeli embassy official in The Hague, where the ICC is based, could not immediately comment.

A preliminary examination, which could take many years, involves prosecutors assessing the strength of evidence of alleged crimes, whether the court has jurisdiction and how the"interests of justice" would best be served.

Only if that led to a full investigation could charges be brought against officials on either the Israeli or Palestinian side of the conflict.

An initial inquiry could lead to war crimes charges against Israel, whether relating to last conflict in Gaza or Israel's 47-year-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It also exposes the Palestinians to prosecution, possibly for rocket attacks by militant groups operating out of Gaza.

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