THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Palestinian Authority joined the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, a move deeply opposed by Israel, vowing to hand over suspects to The Hague, including their own government officials.
The Palestinians, who became the 123rd member of the world's permanent war crimes tribunal, said they would give prosecutors ample time to complete an initial inquiry into last year's Gaza conflict, but would formally request an investigation if it took too long.
"If it takes more (time) than expected ... we will ... issue a referral," Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told Reuters in an interview, adding that his government would not hesitate to hand over Palestinian suspects if the court asked for them.
Accession to the court is part of the Palestinians' campaign to win global recognition of statehood, but Israel says such unilateral moves damage prospects for a negotiated solution to the decades-old conflict.
With the court swamped with investigations in Africa and prosecutors already struggling to secure convictions, any case over alleged crimes in the occupied territories is unlikely to come to trial for some years - if ever.
Palestinian membership gives the court's prosecutors the right to examine war crimes committed by any party on its territory after April 1, a development contested by Israel, which is not an ICC member and has no plans not cooperate.
"I don’t understand the opposition unless (Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin) Netanyahu fears the court and what it might do," Maliki said.
"If he believes his army is the most moral army in the world ... then he should not fear our accession to the court."
The court is already examining possible crimes committed during last year's conflict in Gaza, and Maliki said he was confident that it would lead to a case, also conceding that it was "probable" Palestinians would also be charged.
It is ultimately up to the prosecutors whether they charge suspects, but a member state can request them to do so, a move against Israel the Palestinians will be reluctant to make.
At a closed ceremony on Wednesday, ICC vice-president Kuniko Ozaki stressed that court membership is not one-sided.
"Palestine acquires all the rights as well as responsibilities that come with being a State Party to the Statute.
"These are substantive commitments, which cannot be taken lightly," she said in a statement.
ICC prosecutors will have jurisdiction over all future crimes committed by Palestinian citizens.
The ICC is a court of last resort, handling the most serious crimes when local authorities are unable or unwilling to deal with them.
Despite its stated opposition, Israel could face being stuck on the legal sidelines unless it makes a major policy shift by cooperating with or even joining an institution born out of the principles of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders.
Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Toby Chopra