The International Criminal Court’s organizational body of 122 nations in New York on Monday unanimously recognized Palestine as an observer state for the first time, a move which Palestinians hailed as an important step in achieving their final goal of formal membership.
Palestinians want to sue Israel for war crimes before the ICC, but it is unclear if they can do so, because the ICC’s judicial body has not recognized them as a state. In addition, the Palestinians have not finalized their application to the court, but they have threatened to do so, should they fail in their pursuit for a UN Security Council resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines.
On Monday, they received a moral boost from a small procedural decision to grant them the status of observer nation at the start of a meeting of the Assembly of the State Parties of the Rome Statute of the ICC to elect six judges, which took place at the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan.
The Palestinian mission at the UN in New York sent out a celebratory tweet in response.
The President of the Assembly of State Parties of the Rome Statute of the ICC cautiously noted that this step was not indicative of any action the court's judicial body might later take on the matter, when she spoke at the start of Monday’s meeting about the invitation to observer nations to attend the gathering.
“The assembly takes the following decisions on procedure independently and without prejudice to decisions taken for other purposes, including the decisions of any other organization or any organ of the court concerning legal matters before it,” she said.
“At the same time I recall that Rule 94 of the rules of procedures states that at the beginning of every session of the assembly the president, subject to the adoption of the assembly, may invite states which are not parties to the Rome Statute and which have not signed the final act nor the statute to attend the assembly proceedings,” she said.
She then listed those invited to attend the meeting, including the “state of Palestine.” ICC participants were invited to object if they wanted to, but none did.
PLO Ambassador to the UN in New York Riyad Mansour told Al-Jazeera after the meeting that Palestine’s formal inclusion as an observer nation sent “a signal that we are inching closer and closer to the moment of signing on and becoming a state party to the ICC.
“We have consensus among the Palestinian people and among the political groups within the PLO and outside the PLO that we should take that step. What happened today is inching forward in this direction."
Joining the ICC was "a legal step, a diplomatic, political, civilized, peaceful step – in order to seek accountability and seek justice for our people and follow Israeli leaders who are responsible for committing crimes against the Palestinian people, including war crimes,” he said.
If the Palestinians were to sign the court's founding treaty, known as the Rome Statute – the ICC would have jurisdiction over crimes committed in the Palestinian territories.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has long promised to join the tribunal in the event his efforts at the UN Security Council – to set a timetable for Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines – should fail. Such a step could open up Israel to war crime probes over the seven-week war in Gaza.
As neither Israel nor the Palestinians are ICC members, the court currently lacks jurisdiction over Palestinian territories.
Membership in the court opens countries to investigations both on their behalf and against them.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of the international non-governmental group Human Rights Watch, said on Tuesday morning, "Palestinians should stop futzing around with 'observer status' & just join the International Criminal Court already."
Reuters contributed to this report.