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Palestinian war crimes case faces long road

Tuesday - 12/4/2012, 5:44pm  ET

By JOSEF FEDERMAN and MIKE CORDER

JERUSALEM (AP) - Days after winning upgraded status at the United Nations, the Palestinians are threatening to join the world's first permanent war crimes court and pursue charges against the Israelis.

Although the Palestinians say that any decision is still a long ways off, the mere threat has unnerved Israel. But pressing a case may not be so simple and could potentially leave the Palestinians themselves vulnerable to prosecution.

Since winning recognition as a nonmember observer state in the United Nations General Assembly last week, the Palestinians believe they now qualify for membership in the International Criminal Court.

In opposing the Palestinian bid at the U.N., Israel repeatedly cited Palestinian threats to turn to the ICC to prosecute Israeli officials for a variety of alleged crimes, ranging from actions by the Israeli military to Israel's construction of Jewish settlements on occupied land.

While Israel does not recognize the court's jurisdiction and believes its own actions do not violate international law, officials are concerned legal action that could embarrass Israel, make it difficult for Israeli officials to travel overseas or portray the country as a pariah state. A war crimes conviction can include fines and maximum penalties of life in prison.

With this in mind, a senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, spoke of possible ICC action over Israel's tough response to the U.N. bid. Israel immediately cut off $100 million in tax transfers to the Palestinians and announced plans to build thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements.

"By continuing these war crimes of settlement activities on our lands and stealing our money, Israel is pushing and forcing us to go to the ICC," Shaath said late Monday.

On the surface, the Palestinians appear to have a strong case against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim the two areas, as well as the Gaza Strip, for their future state.

The U.N. resolution last week recognized a Palestinian state in all three territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but continues to control access in and out of the area.

The U.N. resolution appeared to repudiate the Israeli position that the West Bank and east Jerusalem are "disputed" territories and effectively condemned Israeli settlements in the areas, which are now home to some 500,000 Israelis. Settlements are at the heart of the current four-year deadlock in peace efforts, with the Palestinians refusing to negotiate while Israel continues to build more settler homes.

The ICC's founding charter describes "the transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies" as a war crime.

The Palestinian position on settlements has widespread international support. The international community, even Israel's closest ally, the U.S., has broadly condemned the latest planned settlement construction.

"Under our very clear understanding of international law, the settlements are illegal and have always been illegal, and that will remain so," Andrew Standley, the European Union's ambassador to Israel, told reporters Tuesday.

Even so, turning this international opposition into legal action against Israel will be no small task. The Palestinians would face a number of legal and political obstacles in pressing forward.

For starters, it remains unclear whether the Palestinians qualify for membership in the court, because it is open only to states.

Last April, the court's chief prosecutor at the time, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, turned down a request by the Palestinians to join the court. But he subsequently said in an AP interview that they would qualify for membership if they gained nonmember state status at the U.N.

So far, the court has said only that it "takes note" of last week's U.N. decision and will consider its "legal implications." Moreno-Ocampo is no longer at the court.

Goran Sluiter, professor of international law at Amsterdam University, said that with their newfound status, it seems likely the Palestinians could join the ICC. But it is unclear whether the court would agree to investigate their complaints.

He said the court would look at key issues, including the gravity of the alleged crimes and whether Israel's own judicial system is capable of judging the case, before deciding whether to prosecute. If they were to launch a probe, prosecutors also would look at alleged crimes by Palestinians.

"I think there is still a very, very, very, long way to go," Sluitter said. In the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, "there's a broad range of conduct that could be a basis for further investigations because they would qualify as war crimes."

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