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Palestinians say they may join war crimes court

Israel concerned it would be the target of charges

JERUSALEM — 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 any decision is a long way off, the threat has unnerved Israel. But pressing a case might not be so simple and could potentially leave the Palestinians vulnerable to prosecution.

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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 UN, Israel repeatedly cited Palestinian threats to turn to the International Criminal Court 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 that legal action 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 International Criminal Court action over Israel’s tough response to the UN bid. Israel immediately cut off $100 million in tax transfers to the Palestinians and announced plans to build thousands of new houses 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 UN 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 UN 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 housing.

The International Criminal Court’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 United States, has broadly condemned the latest planned settlement construction.

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