Speaking from The Hague following a brief ceremony introducing the Palestinians as the court’s 123rd member, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told reporters that the day marked "a significant turning point" that would hopefully head off attacks such as Israel’s 50-day conflict with the Hamas movement in Gaza last summer.
That conflict in July and August left over 2,200 Palestinians dead and thousands injured, mostly civilians, according to United Nations figures. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed.
Israel is not a member of the court, but cases could still be filed in The Hague against Israeli military and political officials for alleged war crimes during the Gaza conflict.
Hamas may also be liable for investigation and indictment for firing missiles indiscriminately at Israeli towns, killing several civilians.
Though Israel as a non-member could refuse to cooperate with the court's investigations, Malki said “its generals and officials will be liable and therefore Israel has to think twice before committing further atrocities against the Palestinians similar to its last war on Gaza."
Israel has waged three military campaigns against Hamas in Gaza over the last six years. However, the Palestinian Authority only asked for an investigation into the latest conflict because it had accepted jurisdiction of the court as of last June.
Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, the court’s chief prosecutor, ordered a preliminary investigation into the latest Gaza conflict shortly after the Palestinians signed papers toward joining the court. The initial probe will seek to determine if there is merit for the Palestinian war-crimes claims against Israel that would require a fuller official investigation.
The Palestinians said they will cooperate fully with the preliminary probe, which could take months.
"We have been waiting for this moment since the Nakba," said Malki, referring to the 1948 flight of many Palestinians from the area that became the nation of Israel that year. "We want to see justice achieved for the Palestinian people and to see those who committed crimes to be held accountable for their acts and to be put on trial."
In addition to the Gaza conflict, the Palestinians also want the court to investigate Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, considered illegal by international law and not recognized by the world community.
Israeli lawmaker Yariv Levin, a member of the ruling Likud Party, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that the Palestinian Authority's membership in the court is a violation of "every letter of the Oslo accords" the Palestinians and Israel signed in 1993.
“If anyone thinks this is the way to force a solution on us, they are bitterly mistaken,” said Levin, stressing that “the road to peace goes through negotiations and agreement only.”
On Tuesday, an Israeli nongovernmental organization specializing in legal matters filed a war-crimes complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against Hamas on behalf of American citizens affected by last year’s Gaza conflict. The complaint charged that the Islamist group had indiscriminately fired rockets on Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv.
Alan Baker, an international law expert and former ambassador and legal advisor to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told Israel radio Wednesday that joining the court should worry every Hamas commander and Palestinian official because they are “in the sights more than any Israeli leaders.”
Abukhater is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.