Hamas has signed a pledge to back any Palestinian bid to join the International Criminal Court, two senior officials in the group said today.
Such a step could expose Israel – as well as Hamas – to war crimes investigations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has debated for months whether to join the court, a step which would transform his relations with Israel from tense to openly hostile and could also strain his ties with the United States.
The decision by Hamas to sign a document in support of a court bid removes a major obstacle, though it is not clear if Mr Abbas now will go ahead.
He has said he would not make any decision without the written backing of all Palestinian factions. Last month, he obtained such support from all factions in the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Hamas, which is not a PLO member, has said it would study the idea. Its decision to support the court option came after almost seven weeks of a deadly cross-border war with Israel and several failed ceasefire efforts.
Since the war erupted on July 8, more than 2,090 Palestinians have been killed, including nearly 500 children, and about 100,000 Gazans have been left homeless, according to United Nations figures and Palestinian officials. Israel has lost 64 soldiers and four civilians, including a four-year-old boy killed by a mortar shell yesterday.
During the war, Gaza militants have fired more than 3,800 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, while Israel launched about 5,000 air strikes against Gaza, the military said.
Israel has said it has targeted sites linked to militants, including rocket launchers and weapons. UN and Palestinian officials say three-quarters of those killed in Gaza have been civilians.
Today, an air strike on a house in central Gaza killed two women, two children and a man, according to medics at the Red Crescent. Six strikes also hit a house in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza, causing severe damage but no injuries, Gaza police said.
Since the start of the Gaza war, MR Abbas has come under growing domestic pressure to pave the way for a possible war crimes investigation of Israel. Last month, he told senior PLO officials and leaders of smaller political groups he would only go ahead if Hamas supports the bid.
If mR Abbas were to turn to the court, Hamas could be investigated for indiscriminate rocket fire at Israel since 2000. Israel could come under scrutiny for its actions in the current Gaza war as well as decades of settlement building on war-won lands the Palestinians seek for a state.
Izzat Rishq, a senior Hamas official, said today that Hamas was not concerned about becoming a target of a war crimes investigation and urged Mr Abbas to act “as soon as possible”.
“We are under occupation, under daily attack and our fighters are defending their people,” he said in a phone interview from Qatar. “These rockets are meant to stop Israeli attacks and it is well known that Israel initiated this war and previous wars.”
However, it is not clear if such arguments would hold up in court. After the last major round of Israel-Hamas fighting more than five years ago, a UN fact-finding team said both Israel and Hamas violated the rules of war by targeting civilians – Hamas by firing rockets at Israel.
Hamas’s decision to back a court bid came after meetings on Thursday and yesterday in Qatar between Mr Abbas and the top Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas leader who participated in the meetings, wrote on his Facebook page early today that “Hamas has signed the paper” of support Mr Abbas had requested. The post was also reported on Hamas news websites.
There was no comment from Abbas aides.
A senior Palestinian official has said Mr Abbas is likely to wait for the findings of a UN-appointed commission of inquiry into possible Gaza war crimes - due by March – before turning to the court.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment. Israel opposes involving the court, arguing that Israel and the Palestinians should deal with any issues directly.
A former International Criminal Court prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, told the Associated Press earlier this week that he believes drawing the court into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be a positive step.
“I think the ICC could contribute to a solution” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.
He noted that the court, established in 2002, would only get involved if it determined that the two sides are not conducting their own credible investigations of alleged war crimes.
Turning to the International Criminal Court became an option for Mr Abbas in 2012, after the UN General Assembly recognised “Palestine” in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967, as a non-member observer state. The upgrade to a state opened the door to requesting the court’s jurisdiction in Palestine.