Palestinian Authority Becomes Official Member of International Criminal Court

Israel isn't a member of ICC, but its leaders could now face charges for alleged crimes on Palestinian territory.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki at the ICC, August 5, 2014.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki (C) leaves the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague, Aug. 5, 2014. Reuters

The Palestinian Authority has officially become a member of the International Criminal Court two months after signing its treaty, and is marking the momentous occasion with a low-key ceremony at the court's headquarters.

Palestinians signed the court's founding treaty in January and it came into force Wednesday, an event welcomed by activists who see it as an opportunity to bring accountability to years of conflict between Palestinians and Israel.

Israel is not a member of the ICC, but the country's military and civilian leaders could now face charges if they are believed to have committed crimes on Palestinian territory.

The court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, opened a preliminary investigation in mid-January after the Palestinians formally accepted the court's jurisdiction dating back to just before last year's Gaza conflict.

The Palestinian government would allow the International Criminal Court ample time to conduct an inquiry into possible war crimes during last year's Gaza conflict, but would make a formal referral if it took too long, its foreign minister said. 

Riyad al-Maliki also said his government would have no hesitation in handing over any Palestinian suspects, including himself or other senior government officials, if the ICC asked it to do so. 

"We have to give (the prosecutor) the benefit of the doubt, ample time to do that preliminary investigation," he said. "If we feel that it ... is not going to lead to any official investigation or will take more than expected in terms of time, we will utilize our advantage of issuing a referral." 

In a statement, Hamas official Ismail Radwan called Wednesday's move "a step in the right direction." He said Palestinian leaders must use the opportunity "to pursue the (Israeli) occupation and fight it until it's punished for its crimes against the Palestinian people."

The ICC is a court of last resort, handling the most serious crimes when local authorities are unable or unwilling to deal with them. 

Israel opposes Palestinian membership in the court, a distant successor of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War Two, and lobbied unsuccessfully for its western allies to cut funding.