The Palestinian Authority formally joined the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, positioning itself to pursue war crimes cases against Israel and deepening the rift between the two sides.
Israel denounced the move as “political, cynical and hypocritical,” and said it violated agreements to pursue a negotiated settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
At a closed ceremony at the court headquarters in The Hague, the Palestinian Authority became the 123rd member of the international tribunal. Established in 2002 to prosecute cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, the court has focused largely on atrocities in Africa.
With Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts at an impasse, the Palestinian Authority moved to join the ICC after obtaining observer-state status at the United Nations in an effort to gain international recognition and increase pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian areas.
The United States has joined Israel in opposing the Palestinian actions, calling them unilateral steps circumventing negotiations. Neither the United States nor Israel has ratified the agreement that set up the court.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called the joining of the ICC “a historic day” that “serves as a reminder to the international community of its responsibilities under international law, in order to achieve a just and lasting peace and put an end to the prolonged occupation.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said that the move, along with what it called other unilateral Palestinian steps, “flagrantly violate the basic principles agreed by the parties, backed by the international community, to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“Such steps emphasize once again the Palestinians’ refusal to conduct peace negotiations with Israel,” the ministry added in a statement.
The Palestinians are holding back for now on filing complaints to the court, pending a preliminary examination launched by the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, into alleged war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories.
Palestinian officials said earlier that they were preparing submissions to the court on alleged Israeli crimes during last summer’s war in the Gaza Strip, and on Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
A key motive behind the Palestinian delay may be concern about punitive steps by the U.S. Congress, where there have been threats to freeze aid to the Palestinian Authority should it pursue cases against Israel.
Israel suspended the monthly transfer of tax and customs revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority after the Palestinians signed on to the ICC in December, deepening a cash crisis in the West Bank. On Friday, the Israeli government said it would release the impounded funds but gave no indication whether monthly transfers would be resumed.
Membership in the ICC also exposes the Palestinians to complaints by Israel for alleged war crimes committed by militants in the Gaza Strip who fired rockets at Israeli towns and cities during last summer’s conflict.
“Palestine acquires all the rights as well as responsibilities that come with being a state party to the statute,” ICC vice president Kuniko Ozaki said at the ceremony, referring to the Rome Statute, the court’s founding treaty. “These are substantive commitments, which cannot be taken lightly.”
Under ICC guidelines it is a court of last resort, stepping in only when states fail to prosecute cases of alleged war crimes under their jurisdiction.
In an effort to head off prosecution at the court, the Israeli army has announced that it is reviewing more than 120 cases of suspected violations by troops during the Gaza war and that it has ordered 19 criminal investigations into such incidents.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to defend Israeli soldiers against any international prosecution.