Netanyahu accuses ICC of anti-Semitism in pursuit of war crimes probe

FILE PHOTO: Israeli PM Netanyahu chairs weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the International Criminal Court of anti-Semitism on Sunday over its chief prosecutor's plan to pursue a war crimes probe in the Palestinian Territories.

The right-wing leader, who is fighting for his political life in a March election, made the allegation with Judaism's holy Western Wall as a backdrop during a candle-lighting ceremony marking the start of the eight-day Hanukkah holiday.

"New edicts are being cast against the Jewish people - anti-Semitic edicts by the International Criminal Court telling us that we, the Jews standing here next to this wall ... in this city, in this country, have no right to live here and that by doing so, we are committing a war crime," he said.

"Pure anti-Semitism," Netanyahu said, raising an argument likely to strike a chord with many Israelis who believe that criticism, especially in Europe, of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians has its roots in anti-Jewish sentiment.

The Hague-based International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said on Friday she would launch a full investigation into alleged war crimes in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip as soon as the court's jurisdiction had been established.

Israel captured those areas in the 1967 Middle East war and withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Bensouda's announcement opens the possibility of charges being filed against Israelis or Palestinians. Israeli media, however, largely portrayed it as a bid to subject Israeli leaders and military officers to arrest and trial if they travel overseas.

Netanyahu's accusations appeared to be centered on a scenario in which Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where the Western Wall stands within the walled Old City, could be viewed by the court as war crimes.

ICC prosecutors have said a preliminary investigation on the West Bank focused on "reported settlement-related activities engaged in by Israeli authorities".

The Palestinians and many countries consider the settlements to be illegal. Israel disputes this, citing security needs and biblical and historical connections to the land.

The Palestinians have welcomed Bensouda's decision.

Netanyahu said on Friday the ICC had no jurisdiction to investigate events in the Palestinian Territories, arguing it could only examine petitions submitted by a sovereign state.

The ICC has the authority to hear cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity committed on the territory of the 123 countries that have signed up to it.

Israel has not joined the court but the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank, has done so. The Gaza Strip is run by the PA's rival, the Islamist Hamas group.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Frances Kerry)