Rights groups urge Palestinians to join International Criminal Court

RAMALLAH, West Bank Thu May 8, 2014 12:43pm EDT

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian and international rights groups urged President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), building on U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood two years ago.

The 17 organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and prominent Palestinian groups Addameer and al-Haq, said acceding to the court would encourage both Israelis and Palestinians to respect international law and would end impunity for alleged war crimes.

Israel, which is not a party to the court, criticized their move, saying it could damage peace talks. It views the call as part of a unilateral Palestinian push to confront Israel after U.S.-backed peace talks collapsed last month amid mutual blame.

The rights groups said in a joint statement that the court's oversight would help, not harm, peace efforts.

"The commission of war crimes with impunity has regularly undermined the peace process. A credible prosecution threat would help to advance the cause of peace," the groups wrote.

"Seeking the ICC's jurisdiction over serious crimes committed on Palestinian territory should therefore be seen as an apolitical step towards ending impunity," they added.

Frustrated by two decades of fruitless peace talks, Abbas won Palestine's recognition by the U.N. General Assembly as a non-member state in 2012.

"IRRESPONSIBLE" ACTIVISTS

Palestinians say that move marked out their lands - Gaza, the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem - as a state under occupation and not merely disputed territory.

Abbas hopes the move will gain him leverage outside the context of talks, which have so far failed to produce an independent state, but he has acceded to only 15 of a few dozen international conventions he is entitled to join.

He has so far refrained from approaching the ICC, where he may eventually be able to advance cases against Israeli officials for alleged war crimes and the construction of Jewish settlements deemed illegal by most countries.

The Palestinians' top peace negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the statement but gave no indication of whether the Abbas government would seek to join the court.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the call was naive and would undermine peace efforts.

"There's very little human rights in all this. Only trigger- happy and irresponsible self-proclaimed activists who do not want to see the Palestinians or Israelis take the arduous and difficult road of trying to negotiate a compromise, but rather keep on fighting for the amusement of the crowds," he said.

(Reporting by Noah Browning and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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