The Palestinians announced Wednesday that they are joining the International Criminal Court to pursue war-crimes charges against Israel — a risky, high-stakes move that brought threats of retaliation from Israel and criticism from the U.S.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acted a day after suffering a defeat in the U.N. Security Council, which voted down a resolution setting a three-year deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state in Yehudah and Shomron.
“The Security Council disappointed us,” Abbas said.
Turning to the International Court at The Hague marks a major policy shift, transforming Abbas’s relations with Israel from tense to openly hostile. The strategy carries risks, including the possibility the Palestinians themselves could be accused of war crimes over rocket attacks by the Hamas terror group on Israeli population centers and other violence against Jewish targets.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to take unspecified “retaliatory steps.” In Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the U.S. was “deeply troubled” by the Palestinians’ “escalatory step.” He said it was “entirely counterproductive and does nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state.”
Israel could take a number of retaliatory actions, including restricting financial transfers to the Palestinians, or curbing certain privileges. The U.S. has not said how it will react, but it provides hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians.
At the International Court, the Palestinians could seek to have Israeli military or political figures prosecuted for alleged crimes involving construction in Yehudah and Shomron, for instance.
Israel is not a member of the court and does not recognize its jurisdiction. And the court has no police force and no authority to enter Israel and arrest suspects. But it could issue arrest warrants that would make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel abroad.
Abbas has been under heavy pressure to take action against Israel amid months of rising tensions over the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks last spring, a 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza over the summer, and a recent spate of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets.
After two decades of failed on-again, off-again peace talks, the Palestinians have decided to seek recognition of their independence in various global bodies. Joining the International Criminal Court is seen as the strongest playing card.
The Palestinians planned to submit their application for membership on Wednesday afternoon. It is expected to be approved within about 60 days.
In a statement, Netanyahu said Israel will protect its troops from prosecution, calling the country’s army “the most moral” in the world. He warned that Abbas’s Palestinian Authority is “the one who needs to fear the International Criminal Court” because of its relationship with Hamas.
Turning to the court became an option for Abbas in 2012, after the United Nations recognized “Palestine” as a non-member observer state.
Abbas made his announcement as the long-dominant Fatah party marked its 50th anniversary.
Yasser Arafat founded Fatah in 1965 with the goal of destroying Israel. The party rose to prominence in the 1970s and ‘80s with a series of hijackings and other attacks. Over time, Fatah moderated and started negotiating with Israel. Arafat died in 2004.