Usually, when Israel and the Palestinians come to blows, the conflict is precipitated by some physical action: rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, an angry dispute over a holy site, Palestinian youths dead at the hands of Israeli forces.
Yet the two sides are now at the most bitter of loggerheads over legal proceedings that at this point are entirely theoretical. Even so, the recent Palestinian bid to join the International Criminal Court, or ICC, has potentially enormous repercussions not only for how the struggle plays out on the ground, but also for the wider world's involvement in what has been a relatively hermetical peace process.
Israel and its staunchest ally, the United States, warn that the Palestinians are embarking on a course that will do nothing to advance the cause of sovereign statehood — and may even set it back by years. The Palestinians say they have been left with little choice but to embrace what even some of their leaders have described as a last-ditch option, and one that has set off fierce internal debate.
Here's what you need to know about the International Criminal Court in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
What is the ICC?
The tribunal grew out of a special judicial body that was set up after the 1990s Balkan wars to try those responsible for the gravest violations of international law. Made a permanent tribunal in 2002, the Hague-based court has the authority to try cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. So far it has had limited success. Nearly all of its investigations have been in Africa, and potentially sensitive cases have sometimes been sidelined.
What do the Palestinians hope joining the court will achieve?
The Palestinians hope to see Israel brought to account for actions including several episodes during the summer war in the Gaza Strip resulting in Palestinian civilian deaths, and for Jewish settlement-building activity in the West Bank, the heartland of what Palestinians view as their future state.
How has Israel reacted to the Palestinians' move?
Swiftly and sharply. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved to withhold monthly tax revenue of more than $120 million that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians, with future revenue similarly threatened. American aid is possibly imperiled as well. President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority uses this money to pay salaries and expenses and could collapse without it.
Why isn't the U.S. a party to the ICC?
Successive U.S. administrations have opted out of joining the court, rather than exposing U.S. troops or officials to outside legal judgment, saying the American legal system has the ability to conduct any needed investigations. But the United States has sometimes cooperated with the court in individual cases.
What are Israel's objections?
Israel, like the U.S., considers its judiciary competent to deal with any alleged war crimes. As proof, it points to about 100 cases under review by Israeli military investigative teams, which have ordered the opening of several criminal proceedings. And like the U.S., Israel strongly considers the Palestinian court bid a unilateral move, at odds with a negotiated peace.
Could the court act against Israeli officials?
Because Israel is not a party, its territory is outside the court's jurisdiction. But officials indicted or convicted by the court could be arrested if they left the country.
Why did the Palestinians move only now?
They had sought to join the court before but were prevented because they aren't a state. But in November 2012, the Palestinians' standing at the United Nations was upgraded to "observer state." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has indicated that will be sufficient for the Palestinian state to accede to the ICC in April.
Does the court automatically investigate all cases referred by members?
No. The ICC has jurisdiction if a member country is unable or unwilling to carry out its own investigation. Also at issue are the gravity and scope of the alleged crimes. A past case that failed to meet that standard, in the court's judgment, was Israel's takeover of the Mavi Marmara, a ship that sought to break Israel's blockade of Gaza in 2010. Nine activists died when Israeli forces stormed the vessel.
Is the Palestinian move part of a larger trend?
Yes. Palestinians are seeking international support for a statehood push, through actions such as a recently rejected U.N. Security Council resolution setting a negotiations timetable, preparing to join dozens of international treaties and charters and lobbying Western governments to recognize it as a state. Israel calls such measures an attempt to discredit and isolate it internationally.
If the Palestinians do join the court, can the ICC look at actions predating that?
Yes, in principle. The Palestinian bid gave a start date of June 13, 2014, which would encompass the Gaza war and the weeks leading up to it. The Palestinians could also look at Jewish settlement activity during that time frame, as international law prohibits moving civilian populations in or out of occupied territories — though Israel interprets the law differently.
Once the Palestinians have membership, couldn't they be prosecuted as well?
Yes, because accepting the court's jurisdiction also commits the Palestinian Authority to investigations of war crimes carried out by its own people. Israel says the militant group Hamas' firing of rockets and mortar rounds at Israeli cities and towns before and during the Gaza war constitutes war crimes.
How does all this bode for future peace talks?
Ill, in a word. Any new negotiations in any event would have waited until a new Israeli government is formed after March elections. But if the Palestinians go forward with joining the ICC and pursue charges against Israel, it would further sour relations. Israel would probably weigh unilateral steps of its own, though it hasn't spelled them out.
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer King from Cairo.