Middle East

Palestinians formally join International Criminal Court

Judges sit during a swearing-in ceremony at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague on 10 March 2015
Image caption Only the ICC's prosecutor and its judges have the authority to decide what cases to pursue

The Palestinians have formally joined the International Criminal Court (ICC), a key step towards being able to pursue Israelis for alleged war crimes.

After a ceremony at The Hague, Foreign Minister Riad Malki said Palestinians sought "justice not vengeance".

But Israel denounced the move as "political, cynical and hypocritical".

The ICC's chief prosecutor launched a "preliminary examination" in January, after the Palestinians signed its founding treaty, the Rome Statute.

Although Israel has not ratified the Rome Statute, its military and civilian leaders could face charges if they are believed to have committed crimes on Palestinian territory.

Palestinian militants will also be open to prosecution.

'Slow' procedures

On Wednesday, the Palestinians became the 123rd member of the ICC, 90 days after they lodged a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the court over alleged crimes committed in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza from 13 June 2014.

Image caption The Palestinians accepted the ICC's jurisdiction from 13 June 2014, shortly before the 50-day Gaza Conflict

This covers events prior to and during last summer's 50-day conflict between Israel and militants in Gaza, which left more than 2,200 people dead.

At least 2,189 were Palestinians, including more than 1,486 civilians, according to the UN. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers were killed along with six civilians.

"In the face of the great injustice our people are enduring and the repeated crimes committed against it, Palestine has decided to seek justice, not vengeance,'' Mr Malki said after being presented with a copy of the Rome Statute at Wednesday's ceremony.

On 16 January, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that she had opened a preliminary examination to determine whether the criteria had been met to merit pursuing a formal investigation.

There are "no timelines" for the preliminary examination, according to the ICC, and Mr Malki told Voice of Palestine radio: "I don't want to disappoint our people, but the ICC procedures are slow and long and might face lots of obstacles and challenges and might take years."

There are reports that the Palestinians are set to lodge a complaint against Israel at the ICC, but experts say only the prosecutor and in some instances its judges have the authority to decide what cases to pursue.

An Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson said the Palestine Liberation Organisation's decision to seek prosecution of Israelis was "political, cynical and hypocritical", when it considered Hamas a partner. Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and other countries.

The spokesperson also warned that the ICC risked being damaged.

'Objectionable' pressure

The Palestinians faced strong opposition over their decision to join the ICC, with critics claiming it undermined chances for a negotiated peace deal.

The US stated that it did not believe Palestine was a sovereign state and therefore should not qualify to join, and warned that it would cut funding to the Palestinian Authority.

Image caption The Palestinians are not known to have carried out any investigations into alleged war crimes by militants

Israeli Prime Minister accused the Palestinians of choosing "a path of confrontation" and froze the transfer of about $400m (£270m) in tax revenues collected on behalf of the PA between January and March.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch called on governments seeking to penalise the Palestinians for joining the ICC to end their pressure.

"What's objectionable is the attempts to undermine international justice, not Palestine's decision to join a treaty to which over 100 countries around the world are members," said Balkees Jarrah, the US-based group's international justice counsel.

Human Rights Watch said it had documented unlawful attacks, including some that it believed were war crimes, during the 2014 hostilities in Gaza. But, it added, both sides had "yet to make meaningful progress in providing justice for serious laws-of-war violations".

Israeli military inquiries into the conflict are ongoing, and the Israel government has announced an investigation by the state comptroller. The PA and Hamas, the militant group that dominates Gaza, are not known to have carried out any investigations.

More on this story