Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed a request Wednesday to join the International Criminal Court, a move that would establish a new avenue for action against Israel after the UN Security Council rejected a resolution which aimed to establish a timetable for a full Israeli pullout from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In a live broadcast from the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas signed 20 international treaties, including the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document.
“We want to complain about the harm caused to us and to our land,” Abbas said before signing the treaties. “But who shall we complain to? The Security Council refused our request. Where will we go? To the international organizations.”
Abbas said the Palestinians seek a fair solution to the conflict based on international principles, and that such a solution would help quell regional unrest. “We do not want anything more, but we will not settle for less,” he said. “Tonight we sign 20 different international treaties, even though we have the right to join any international institutions.”
The Palestinians hope ICC membership will pave the way for war crimes prosecutions against Israeli officials. Abbas did not specify Wednesday when he planned to file complaints against Israel, or the specifics of such intended complaints, which it may be feasible to file within the next few weeks.
The Palestinians planned to submit the paperwork for joining the ICC to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday afternoon, but postponed it, probably until Friday. Handing over the documents is the last formal step for Palestine to become a member of the ICC, which would happen in about 60 days.
Israel, however, maintains it is Palestinian crimes that would be exposed to the judgment of the Hague-based court.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to the announcement that it was the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, that had to worry about the ICC’s judgments because of its partners, Hamas, from whose Gaza territory over 4,500 rockets and other projectiles were fired at Israel during a 50-day war this summer. Abbas’s Fatah and the Islamist terror group Hamas are the joint backers of the current Palestinian “unity” government.
“We will adopt steps in response and we will protect the soldiers of the IDF — the most moral army in the world,” Netanyahu said in a statement. The prime minister is set to convene a meeting Thursday to discuss responding to the Palestinians’ ICC gambit.
Tuesday’s vote at the Security Council came after a three-month Palestinian campaign to win support for a resolution that would have set a three-year timeline for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.
Israel hailed the rejection as a victory, saying it dealt a blow to Palestinian efforts to diplomatically “embarrass and isolate” the Jewish state.
The Palestinians denounced as “outrageously shameful” the failure of the text to win the necessary nine votes for passage, potentially forcing a US veto. The US, which backs a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. had made clear it would veto the motion if necessary. Abbas and the Palestinian leadership had been confident that the necessary nine votes were locked in, but miscalculated.
The resolution would have set a 12-month deadline for Israel to reach a final peace deal with the Palestinians and called for a full withdrawal of Israeli troops by the end of 2017.
Council heavyweights China, Russia and, unexpectedly, France were among eight countries voting in favor, while the United States and Australia voted against.
Nigeria, which had been expected to support the resolution, was among five abstentions, along with Britain, Rwanda, Lithuania and South Korea.
Nigeria had assured the Palestinians it would support them, but abstained after lobbying efforts by Israel and Washington.
The failure to win the nine votes necessary for adoption spared Washington from having to wield its veto, which would have caused it embarrassment with key Arab allies.
Speaking Wednesday, Netanyahu extended his special thanks to Nigeria and Rwanda. “This is what tipped the scales,” he said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said “the failure of the Palestinian vote at the Security Council should teach the Palestinians that provocations and attempts to force Israel into unilateral processes will not achieve anything — quite the opposite.”
But Russia said the council’s failure to pass the resolution was “a strategic error.”
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi expressed regret over the outcome, criticizing the African nations that abstained and pledging to continue “intensive Arab diplomatic activity” in support of the Palestinian cause.
The Palestinians reacted furiously to the vote and pledged to press ahead immediately with an application for ICC membership.
Saeb Erekat, the former chief PA negotiator with Israel, said Security Council member states had come under “unprecedented pressure” not to back the motion. He denied that the Palestinians had mishandled the resolution by submitting it for a vote just two days before changes in the rotating UNSC membership would have yielded a near-certain majority: “The US told us it would use its veto in the Security Council, so there wasn’t a problem of timing or handling,” Erekat said.
But he then appeared to confirm that the Palestinians had been shocked to discover that they were one vote short of the nine needed to trigger a US veto, intimating that the US and Israel had heavily pressured some countries into shifting their positions. “States are bound by their own interests. Unprecedented pressure was placed upon them,” he said. “Nigeria was told, If you don’t abstain or vote against, we will deprive you of assistance in your war against [Islamist terror group] Boko Haram.”
“The UN Security Council vote is outrageously shameful,” said senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi. “Those countries that abstained demonstrated a lack of political will to hold Israel accountable and to act in accordance with the global rule of law and international humanitarian law.”
The Islamist terror movement Hamas blamed Abbas for the setback, demanding he make good on threats to cut security cooperation with Israel and join the ICC.
The ICC can prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Palestinian plans to become a party to the court have been strongly opposed by Israel and the United States.
The Palestinians will themselves be judged by this court, which will show the world the nature of Palestinian terrorism and the war crimes committed in the name of the Palestinian Authority,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said.
AP contributed to this report.