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Palestinians face new diplomatic battle over ICC move

US and Israel condemn Palestinian move to join ICC as Abbas signs 20 international treaties
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) signs 20 international treaties, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Ramallah, West Bank on 31 December, 2014 (AA)

The Palestinians were facing a fresh diplomatic battle Thursday after taking steps to join the International Criminal Court in a move which was strongly condemned by both Washington and Israel. 

The dramatic move to join the Hague-based court, which could pave the way for the Palestinians to sue Israeli officials for war crimes, came less than 24 hours after the UN Security Council rejected a resolution seeking to set a deadline for ending the occupation. 

The resolution's failure was hailed by Israel as a success, but Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas quickly moved to sign a request to join the court, finally making good on a threat which has been in the offing for years. 

The Palestinians hope that joining the court will pave the way for them to seek justice against Israel for its actions in the occupied territories.

The move drew a sharp reaction from the US State Department and a derisive response from Israel, setting the stage for a new confrontation over Palestinian diplomatic efforts to end the decades-long occupation. 

"We will rebuff this attempt to force diktats on us just as we repelled the Palestinian appeal to the UN Security Council," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late on Wednesday, insisting that the Palestinians had more to fear from the court than Israel.

"It is the Palestinian Authority that has formed a unity government with Hamas -- an avowed terrorist organisation that, like the Islamic State (group), carries out war crimes -- which should be concerned about the ICC," he said.

State Department spokesman Jeffrey Rathke said Washington was "deeply troubled" by the attempt to join the ICC, warning it would only "push the parties further apart." 

"Today's action is entirely counterproductive and does nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state," he said.

Rathke said the Palestinians' ICC request "badly damages the atmosphere with the very people with whom they ultimately need to make peace.

"The United States continues to strongly oppose actions -- by both parties -- that undermine trust and create doubts about their commitment to a negotiated peace.

"Our position has not changed. Such actions only push the parties further apart."

The ICC can prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed since July 1, 2002, when the court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, came into force. To become a party to the court, the Palestinians must sign then ratify the treaty. 

The request was signed by Abbas during a leadership meeting at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah which was broadcast live on Palestinian television. At the same time, he also signed applications to join 20 other international conventions. 

The applications were made less than 24 hours after the Security Council failed to pass a Palestinian-drafted resolution setting a 12-month deadline to reach a final peace deal and demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories by the end of 2017.

Israel hailed the rejection as a victory, saying it dealt a blow to Palestinian efforts to diplomatically "embarrass and isolate" Tel Aviv, but the Palestinians denounced the vote as "outrageously shameful."

Israel reprimands French envoy

Security Council heavyweights China, France and Russia were among eight countries voting in favour, while the United States and Australia voted against. Five other countries, including Britain, abstained -- among them Nigeria which had been expected to vote in favour but changed its stance at the last minute. 

In response to the vote, Israel summoned the French ambassador, saying it was "disappointed and perplexed" by Paris's support for the resolution.

The failure to win the nine "yes" votes necessary for adoption spared Washington having to wield its veto, which would have caused it embarrassment with key Arab allies. 

But it was also a diplomatic blow for the Palestinians, who had counted on the symbolic victory of nine votes, even though the resolution would in all likelihood have been blocked by a US veto.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the resolution's failure "should teach the Palestinians that provocations and attempts to force Israel into unilateral processes will not achieve anything."

But Russia denounced the outcome of the UN vote as "a strategic error."

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said the vote was "outrageously shameful" and accused states, including Britain, which abstained of demonstrating "a lack of political will to hold Israel accountable."

Hamas, the de facto power in the Gaza Strip, demanded that Abbas end his forces' security cooperation with Israel. 

"This was a unilateral decision taken by Abu Mazen (Abbas) who has taken the Palestinian decision-making process hostage," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP, describing it as a "new failure" by the Palestinian leader.

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