Benjamin Netanyahu asks Justin Trudeau to denounce ICC war crimes probe

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 24. (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister’s Office)

Israel has asked Canada to condemn a preliminary report that says there is a “reasonable basis” to investigate Israeli soldiers for war crimes perpetrated against Palestinians.

A Dec. 20 letter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the conclusions of the report by the International Criminal Court (ICC) “unfounded and dangerous.”

Netanyahu’s letter, obtained by the Globe and Mail, said the ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate because Palestine does not meet the criteria of statehood. He argued that the ICC’s decision will only inflame Middle East tensions.

“In light of our special relations and the steadfast friendship between our counties, I urge you to publicly condemn this erroneous decision, to acknowledge there is not a Palestinian state, that the court has no jurisdiction in this matter, which involves political issues to be determined by the parties, and to voice your deep concerns regarding its dangerous ramifications to the court and the region,” Netanyahu’s letter to Trudeau stated.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda (Max Koot Studio/CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was not immediately clear whether Netanyahu wrote similar letters to other world leaders.

The letter to Trudeau came on the heels of a preliminary report from ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, which was based on a probe she started in 2015.

“I am satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation into the situation in Palestine,” wrote Bensouda, adding that, “In brief, I am satisfied that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.”

However, Bensouda first asked the court to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories.

Asked to comment on Netanyahu’s letter, Israel’s deputy ambassador to Canada, Ohad Kaynar, said that “as a matter of course, the Embassy does not comment on prime ministerial correspondence.”

The CJN’s queries to Trudeau’s office were referred to Global Affairs Canada. “We do not comment on state-to-state correspondence,” Global Affairs spokesperson Krystyna Dodds told The CJN in an email.

Canada “is monitoring the ICC’s consideration of the situation in the West Bank including east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,” Dodds wrote, adding that Ottawa’s “longstanding position is that it does not recognize a Palestinian state and therefore does not recognize the accession of such a state to international treaties.”

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. (Hypergio/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

She added that, “As a friend and ally of Israel and friend of the Palestinian people, Canada is firmly committed to the goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, including the creation of a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel, achieved through direct negotiations between the parties.”

Canada’s position on the legal status of a Palestinian state was reinforced in a memo written by its permanent mission to the United Nations in January 2015, a week after Bensouda began her probe.

Canada noted that Palestine does not meet the criteria of a state under international law and is not recognized by Canada as a state.

“Therefore, in order to avoid confusion, the permanent mission of Canada wishes to note its position that in the context of the purported Palestinian accession to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, ‘Palestine’ is not able to accede to this convention, and that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court does not enter into force, or have an effect on Canada’s treaty relations, with respect to the ‘State of Palestine,’ ” the memo stated.

IDF soldiers participate in Operation Protective Edge in 2014. (Israel Defence Forces/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Israel issued a nearly identically worded memo at the same time.

In addition to investigating Israel, Bensouda’s report also says that there is a “reasonable basis to believe” that members of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have committed war crimes.

Those charges included intentionally directing attacks against civilians, using “protected persons” as shields, “wilfully depriving protected persons of the rights of fair and regular trial,” “wilful killing” and/or “torture or inhuman treatment” and “outrages upon personal dignity.”

Part of the ICC’s report, which runs 112 pages long, says there is “a reasonable basis to believe” that Israeli soldiers committed war crimes in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

The allegations include intentionally launching “disproportionate attacks” and “wilful killing and wilfully causing serious injury to body or health.” As well, the report says Israeli authorities may have committed war crimes relating to “the transfer of Israeli civilians into the West Bank since 13 June 2014.”

The ICC said its probe could encompass hostilities between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli troops at the Gaza-Israel border fence in March 2018. The report says the fighting “reportedly” resulted in 200 deaths, including over 40 children, and the wounding of thousands of others.

Included among the wounded was Palestinian-Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani, who was shot by an Israeli sniper while providing medical care. At the time, Trudeau said he was “appalled” by Loubani’s shooting and asked Netanyahu to investigate.

An ICC panel of three judges has 120 days to rule on the extent of the court’s jurisdiction.

Israel and the United States are not among the more than 120 members of the ICC and do not accept its jurisdiction, but the Palestinians are recognized as a member state and requested the ICC investigation.