Mike Corder / AP

Palestine joins the International Criminal Court

Accession to the court is part of the Palestinians’ campaign to win global recognition of statehood

Palestine joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Wednesday, a move deeply opposed by Israel, vowing to hand over suspects to The Hague, including its own government officials.

It became the 123rd member of the world's permanent war crimes tribunal and said it would give prosecutors ample time to complete an initial inquiry into last year's Gaza conflict but would formally request an investigation if it takes 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.

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.

ICC membership "could ensure justice for victims of very serious crimes, and sends an important message that grave abuse can’t be committed with impunity,” Balkees Jarrah, International Justice Counsel at Human Rights Watch and expert on the ICC, told Al Jazeera. “Palestine’s accession to the court is a positive step for justice and the rule of law, and giving the court a mandate could help deter war crimes.”

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.

“Were the actions grave enough during the attack on Gaza, I’d certainly say so,” Diana Buttu, Ramallah-based human rights lawyer and former legal advisor to the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Al Jazeera. However, she does not expect a “heavy push” from the Palestinians for alleged crimes committed before April 1. “Going forward, however, if Israel announces a new settlement plan, for example, Palestine can lodge a compliant about that,” Buttu said.

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 to 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."

Al Jazeera and wire services. Ehab Zahriyeh has contributed to this report

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