Hamas leaders said on Saturday they had given their consent for the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court, a move that could open up both Israel and the terrorist group to war crime probes over the fighting in Gaza.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas leader based in Cairo, said he had signed a document Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says all factions must endorse before he proceeds with the ICC push.
If the Palestinians were to sign the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, the court would have jurisdiction over crimes committed in the Palestinian territories.
An investigation could then examine events as far back as mid-2002, when the ICC opened with a mandate to try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Explaining the Islamist group’s decision to sign, Hamas official Mushir al-Masri told Reuters: “There is nothing to fear, the Palestinian factions are leading legitimate resistance in keeping with all international laws and standards.
“We are in a state of self-defense,” he added.
At a news conference in Cairo earlier on Saturday, Abbas said he had asked all factions to support the ICC bid, adding: “There will be results for them joining.”
There was no immediate comment from Israel, which is also not an ICC member.
It says Hamas has committed war crimes by both firing thousands of rockets indiscriminately at Israeli towns and cities and by using Gazans as human shields.
Both Israel and Hamas defend their military operations as consistent with international law.
In a meeting with ICC prosecutors this month to push for an investigation, PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said there was “clear evidence” of war crimes by Israel during its offensive in Gaza launched on July 8.
Hamas is shunned by Israel and the West as a terrorist group. The Islamist group’s founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Palestinian health officials say 2,078 people, most of them civilians, have been killed by Israel since it launched its offensive, which is intended to end the Gazan rocket fire. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) said on Saturday at least 480 Palestinian children had been reported killed.
As neither Israel nor the Palestinians are ICC members, the court lacks jurisdiction over Gaza. This could be granted by a UN Security Council resolution, but the United States would probably veto any such proposal.
Membership of the ICC opens countries to investigations both on their behalf and against them. Several powers, including the United States, have declined to ratify the ICC founding treaty, citing the possibility of politically motivated prosecutions.
The ICC is a court of last resort, meaning that it will only intervene when a country is found to be unwilling or unable to carry out its own investigation.