The Hague: The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court launched a preliminary probe 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 recogniSed 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 organisation that is in a covenant with the Palestinian Authority, and whose war criminals fired thousands of rockets at civilians in Israel," Netanyahu said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticised 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.