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 that any decision is still a long way off, the mere threat has unnerved Israel. But pressing a case may not be simple and could potentially leave the Palestinians themselves vulnerable to prosecution.
Since winning recognition as a nonmember observer state in the United Nations General Assembly last week, the Palestinians believe they qualify for membership in the International Criminal Court.
In opposing the Palestinian bid at the U.N., Israel repeatedly cited Palestinian threats to turn to the ICC 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 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 prison terms.
A senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, spoke of possible ICC action over Israel's tough response to the U.N. vote. Israel immediately cut off $100 million in tax transfers to the Palestinians and announced plans to build thousands of new homes 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 Monday.
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 U.N. 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 to the area.
The U.N. 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, 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 settler homes.
The ICC'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 U.S., has condemned the latest planned construction.
"Under our very clear understanding of international law, the settlements are illegal and have always been illegal, and that will remain so," Andrew Standley, the European Union's ambassador to Israel, told reporters Tuesday.
Even so, in turning this international opposition into legal action the Palestinians would face a number of legal and political obstacles.
For starters, it is unclear whether the Palestinians qualify for membership in the court, because it is open only to states.
The Palestinians would also face heavy political pressure not to go to court.
The U.S. Senate, for instance, is debating legislation that would cut off millions of dollars in assistance to the Palestinians and close their diplomatic offices in Washington if they file charges against Israel.
Late Tuesday, a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank said they would ask the U.N. Security Council to pass a decision calling on Israel to halt "all forms of settlement activity."