Palestinians face new diplomatic battle over ICC move

Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - The Palestinians faced a fresh diplomatic battle Thursday after taking steps to join the International Criminal Court in a move strongly condemned by both Washington and Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the Hague-based ICC to reject the request signed on Wednesday, arguing that the Palestinian Authority (PA) did not rank as a state.

The dramatic bid to join the court, which could pave the way for the Palestinians to sue Israeli officials over alleged war crimes, came less than 24 hours after the UN Security Council rejected a resolution seeking to set a deadline for ending the occupation.

The resolution's failure was hailed by Israel as a success, but Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas who heads the PA moved quickly to sign the ICC request, finally making good on a threat which has been in the offing for years.

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.

"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 in a statement, referring to the Islamist movement Hamas.

The statement followed talks which Netanyahu chaired at the defence ministry to discuss an Israeli response.

Shortly after the signing, Netanyahu said: "We will rebuff this attempt to force diktats on us just as we repelled the Palestinian appeal to the UN Security Council."

And US State Department spokesman Jeffrey Rathke said Washington was "deeply troubled" by the attempt to join the ICC, warning it would only "push the parties further apart".

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, the Rome Statute, came into force.

To become a party to the court, the Palestinians must sign and then ratify the treaty.

Abbas signed the ICC request and applications to join 20 other international organisations during a televised leadership meeting at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

The move was hailed by Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip who issued a statement describing 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 Gaza conflict that began in December the previous year, but the request was never processed because they were not considered a state party.

The Palestinians' UN rank was upgraded from observer entity to observer state in 2012, opening the possibility for them to join the ICC and a host of other international organisations.

- The 'nuclear option' -

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.

Israel hailed the rejection as a victory, saying it dealt a blow to Palestinian efforts to diplomatically "embarrass and isolate" the Jewish state, but the Palestinians denounced the vote as "outrageously shameful".

Israeli commentators said although the vote's failure was "a diplomatic achievement" for Israel, it was quickly overshadowed as Abbas moved to exercise his so-called "nuclear option" -- joining the ICC.

Unnamed government officials quoted in Yediot Aharonot newspaper said the move showed the Palestinians had "declared diplomatic war" on Israel.

"The Palestinian intention to turn to the International Criminal Court is an act of belligerence," Daniel Reisner, an international law expert, told the paper.

"This opens up a new theatre of war between Israel and the Palestinians," he said, with fellow commentator Amos Yadlin agreeing.

"Israel faces greater risks from the diplomatic efforts that the Palestinian Authority has undertaken in Europe and the UN, which are all but certain to produce a significant diplomatic battle in 2015," he wrote in an op ed.

The UN vote saw Security Council heavyweights China, France and Russia among eight countries who gave their support, while the United States and Australia voted against.

Five other countries, including Britain, abstained -- among them Nigeria which had been expected to vote in favour but changed its stance at the last minute.

In response, Israel summoned the French ambassador, saying it was "disappointed and perplexed" by Paris's backing for the resolution.