Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday signed papers to join the International Criminal Court, where Israeli officials could be prosecuted for alleged war crimes, ratcheting up diplomatic pressure after a failed bid at the United Nations to set a deadline for Palestinian statehood.
The move raised the prospect of retaliatory sanctions against the Palestinian Authority by Israel and the United States and underlined the Palestinian effort to push for recognition in international forums after years of failed negotiations with Israel.
On Tuesday, the Palestinians were unable to muster the required votes in the U.N. Security Council for a resolution calling for an end to Israeli occupation and Palestinian statehood by 2017. The United States, which opposed the resolution, pressed several council members to abstain.
“We are being attacked, our land is being attacked, every day. To whom will we complain?” Abbas told a meeting of his top aides as he signed on to 18 international treaties at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “The Security Council let us down, where are we to go?”
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One of the treaties is the Rome Statute, the founding document of the Hague-based International Criminal Court. “There is an international organization we can go to . . . and lodge our complaint with these people,” Abbas said, referring to the possible pursuit of cases against Israeli settlement building and officials involved in military operations against Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is at the start of an election campaign, vowed to respond to Abbas’ move. He warned that by joining the international court, the Palestinian Authority was opening itself up to prosecution for alleged war crimes committed by Palestinian militants.
“It is the Palestinian Authority – which is in a unity government with Hamas, an avowed terrorist organization that, like ISIS, perpetrates war crimes – that needs to be concerned about the International Criminal Court in the Hague,” said Netanyahu, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
“We will take steps in response and we will defend the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, the most moral army in the world,” he added.
The International Criminal Court, which has 122 member states, was established in 2002 to prosecute cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and has focused largely on atrocities in Africa.
After the U.N. General Assembly upgraded the Palestinians’ status to a non-member observer state in 2012, they became eligible to sign on to the Rome Statute and join the court.
Analysts said Abbas has been under growing public pressure to act in the aftermath of a devastating Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza last summer and the continuing stalemate in peace efforts.
An opinion poll in early December by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah showed a decline in Abbas’ approval rating from 50 percent before the war to 35 percent, and indicated that he would lose in an election to Ismail Haniyeh, the top leader of Hamas in Gaza.
But Abbas’ move runs the risk of provoking financial sanctions by Israel and the U.S. Congress, where there have been calls for a tough response. Israel has in the past suspended tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for its moves to gain statehood recognition at the U.N., leaving it unable to pay wages to its employees.