Exclusive-Gaza hospital staff questioned by ICC war crimes prosecutors, sources say

By Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) -Prosecutors from the International Criminal Court have interviewed staff from Gaza’s two biggest hospitals, two sources told Reuters, the first confirmation that ICC investigators were speaking to medics about possible crimes in the Gaza Strip.

The sources, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject, told Reuters ICC investigators had taken testimony from staff who had worked in the main hospital in Gaza City in the north of the enclave, Al Shifa, and the main hospital in Khan Younis in the south, Nasser.

The sources declined to provide more details, citing concerns about the safety of potential witnesses.

One of the sources said that events surrounding the hospitals could become part of the investigation by the ICC, which hears criminal cases against individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and aggression.

The ICC’s office of the prosecutor declined to comment on operational matters in ongoing investigations citing the need to ensure the safety of victims and witnesses.

The ICC has said it is investigating both sides in the conflict, including both the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas fighters on Israel and the subsequent Israeli offensive in Gaza.

The Israeli prime minister’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Nasser hospital director in Gaza did not respond to a request for comment and the director of Al Shifa could not be reached. A spokesperson for Gaza’s Health Ministry also did not respond to a request for comment about any ICC investigation with staff.

During the conflict, the two main Gaza hospitals have both been high profile Israeli targets – surrounded, besieged and stormed by Israeli forces who accused Hamas militants of using them for military purposes, which Hamas and medical staff deny.

In recent days, Palestinian officials have also demanded investigations after hundreds of bodies were exhumed in mass graves at Nasser. The two sources were not able to say whether such graves formed part of any questioning.

Israel denies carrying out war crimes, including in or around Gaza hospitals, where it says all its military activities have been justified by the presence of Hamas fighters.

Hospitals are protected during wartime by international treaties, which can make attacks on them war crimes under the ICC, although they can lose this protection under some circumstances if they are used by combatants in a way that is harmful to the enemy.

Israel is not a member of the ICC, while the Palestinian territories were admitted as a member state in 2015. The ICC says this gives it jurisdiction over actions by anyone including Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories, and by Palestinians anywhere, including on Israeli territory. Israel does not recognise any ICC jurisdiction over its citizens.

Any ICC criminal case would be separate from a case in the International Court of Justice, or World Court, which was brought by South Africa and accuses Israel of genocide in Gaza, which Israel denies. The ICJ, also based in the Hague, hears lawsuits between states, while the ICC hears criminal cases against individuals.

‘DANGEROUS PRECEDENT’

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday any ICC move would not affect Israel’s actions but would “set a dangerous precedent that threatens soldiers and public figures”.

“Under my leadership, Israel will never accept any attempt by the International Criminal Court in the Hague to undermine its basic right to defend itself,” he wrote on Telegram.

Hamas fighters attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, by Israeli tallies. Israel responded with an assault that Palestinian health authorities say has killed at least 34,000 people, with thousands more bodies believed lost under the rubble.

In a sign the ICC’s investigation into the Oct. 7 attacks has been moving forward, Yael Vias Gvirsman, a lawyer representing some Israeli victims, said in February a handful of her clients had given testimony directly to ICC investigators.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch in The HagueAdditional reporting by Ali Sawafta in RamallahEditing by Edmund Blair and Peter Graff)

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