UN chief Ban Ki-moon has said the Palestinians will formally become a member of the International Criminal Court later this spring – opening the way for a possible investigation of Israel’s military operation in Gaza last summer that left more than 2,000 people dead.
The Secretary General said membership of the international body would begin on April 1 this year, but officials at the court said jurisdiction would date back to June 13, 2014.
The Reuters news agency said the announcement means the court's prosecutor could investigate the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in July and August 2014, during which more than 2,100 Palestinians, 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were killed.
Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas has been keen to join the international body as a means of establishing some sort of leverage and to press his demands for statehood. On December 31, the Palestinians signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, also known as the Rome Statute, which is the treaty that established the ICC.
The Palestinians acted the day after the UN Security Council voted against a resolution that called for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state by late 2017. The US was among those countries that voted against the measure; Britain abstained.
On Wednesday, the US, which like Israel is not a member of the ICC, said it did not believe the Palestinians qualified to become a member of the court. The reason cited by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, was that the Palestinians did did not have statehood – a move that US had voted against last month
“The United States does not believe that the state of Palestine qualifies as a sovereign state and does not recognize it as such and does not believe that it is eligible to accede to the Rome statute,” she told reporters in Washington.
She also said the Obama administration would comply with the law on funding the Palestinians, amid new moves in Congress to freeze approximately $440m (£291m) in annual aid to the Palestinian Authority if it proceeds to join the court.
The ICC, based in the Hague, handles allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It could exercise jurisdiction over such crimes committed by anyone on Palestinian territory. While Israel is not an ICC member, its citizens could be tried on accusations of crimes on Palestinian land.
One expert told Reuters, the only apparent way for the US to challenge the Palestinians’ eligibility to be an ICC member would be in court.
“The most likely challenge would be if an Israeli national ever came before the court,” said Dov Jacobs, a law professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “A lawyer could try to challenge the case’s legality by arguing to judges that Palestine was not a state.”
Momentum to recognise a Palestinian state has built since President Abbas succeeded in a bid for de facto recognition of statehood at the UN General Assembly in 2012, making Palestinians eligible to join the ICC.
Israel, preparing for an election due to take place this spring, says it supports negotiations but rejects third-party timelines. Israel, which pulled its troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, has also said its eastern border would be indefensible if it withdrew completely from the West Bank.
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