RAMALLAH // The Palestinians faced a fresh diplomatic battle yesterday after taking steps to join the International Criminal Court, a move strongly condemned by Washington and Israel.
The move to join the Hague-based court, which could pave the way for the Palestinians to sue Israeli officials for war crimes, came less than 24 hours after the UN Security Council rejected a resolution seeking to set a deadline for ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.
The resolution’s failure was hailed by Israel as a success, but the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, quickly moved to sign a request to join the court, making good on a threat that has been in the offing for years.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, handed over the letters of accession to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, as well as 19 other international treaties, to the deputy special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, James Rawley, yesterday.
The Palestinians hope that joining the court will pave the way for them to seek justice against Israel for its actions in the occupied territories.
The move drew sharp reactions from the US state department and Israel.
A state department spokesman said Washington was deeply troubled by this attempt to join the ICC, and warned that it would only “push the parties further apart” and was “entirely counterproductive”.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, urged the ICC to reject the Palestinians’ request to join because they did not rank as a state.
“We expect the ICC to reject the hypocritical request by the Palestinian Authority, which is not a state but an entity linked to a terrorist organisation,” he said, referring to the Islamist movement Hamas.
The ICC can prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed since July 1, 2002, when the court’s founding treaty came into force.
To become a party to the court, the Palestinians must sign and then ratify the treaty. Mr Abbas signed the applications to join the ICC and other conventions during a leadership meeting at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah on Wednesday, which was broadcast live on Palestinian television.
The move was hailed by Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip, who described it as “a step in the right direction”. At the same time they urged a meeting of the Palestinian leadership “to stop the security coordination” with Israel.
In 2009, the Palestinians appealed to the ICC to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes during a 22-day conflict in Gaza that began in December the previous year, but the request was never processed because they were not considered a state party.
Palestine’s UN status was upgraded from observer entity to observer state in 2012, opening up the possibility for it to join the ICC and several other international organisations.
On Tuesday, the Security Council failed to pass a Palestinian-drafted resolution setting a 12-month deadline to reach a final peace deal and demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories by the end of 2017.
In the UN vote, Security Council heavyweights China, France and Russia were among eight countries who gave their support, while the US and Australia voted against. Five countries, including Britain, abstained.
The UAE yesterday expressed grave concern over the council’s failure to adopt the resolution.
“Through its rejection of the resolution, the Security Council has failed in its responsibility of preserving peace and security in the region and protracts an unjust occupation which breaches international resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council itself,” said Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s permanent representative to the UN.
* Agence France Presse with additional reporting by Wam