The International Criminal Court has rejected a Palestinian Authority bid to clear the way for the permanent war crimes tribunal to investigate an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip that began in December 2008.
Prosecutors listened to lawyers supporting the Palestinian bid and Israel's rejection of it before reaching Tuesday's decision, but ruled that Palestinians could not sign up for the court's founding treaty, the Rome Statute, as only internationally recognized states can join the court.
Palestinians have been seeking international recognition as an independent state at the United Nations, with limited success. The long-awaited written ruling by Luis Moreno-Ocampo is thus also a setback to their aims.
The Palestinian Authority unilaterally recognized the court's jurisdiction in January 2009, and ICC prosecutors have been mulling ever since whether to accept that recognition _ the first step in a process that could have finished with Israel being investigated for possible war crimes.
In a statement, the prosecutor said it is up to "relevant bodies at the United Nations" or the group of nations that makes up the court to determine whether Palestinians can sign up to the Rome Statute.
The court can only launch investigations if asked by the U.N. Security Council or an involved state that has recognized the court. Israel has never recognized its jurisdiction.
"The bottom line is that the ICC has no jurisdiction. We knew that and we said as much since the beginning," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
"If the (Palestinian Authority) has any grievance, the proper way to deal with it, is to talk to Israel and try to sort this out directly. Resorting to the ICC or to the UN or to any far away institution ... that's just a waste of time," he said.
Shawan Jabarin, director of al-Haq, a Palestinian rights group which has lobbied to prosecute Israeli officials abroad, expressed disappointment.
"There's no domestic remedy for Palestinians to seek justice here. There's nothing before Palestinians except to search for justice outside. The most important body for us was the ICC," Jabarin said.
South African jurist Richard Goldstone led a U.N. investigation that culminated in a report to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council in September 2009 accusing both Israel and Hamas of deliberately targeting civilians.
The report, later endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly in New York, said Israel used disproportionate force, and used Palestinians as human shields, while destroying civilian infrastructure to root out Palestinian rocket squads. It also accused Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas, of trying to spread terror through rocket attacks on southern Israel.
Goldstone later wrote in an op-ed piece that he was reconsidering the conclusion that Israel deliberately targeted civilians, but he has not taken the next step of asking the Human Rights Council to withdraw his report.
Palestinians trying to sue Israel's military for deaths and damages suffered during the conflict have faced difficult obstacles in the Jewish state: court fees of sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to be lodged before their cases will be heard, travel restrictions that leave them unable to leave the territory to testify, and security problems that make it impossible for Israeli experts to enter Gaza to look at forensic evidence.
Amnesty International and other groups have accused Israel of committing war crimes by killing civilians and firing white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas, among other actions, during the conflict between Israeli forces and Hamas militants that erupted late in December 2008.
Human Rights Watch called for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes by both Israel and Hamas.
Israel launched its three-week offensive with the aim of ending years of Hamas rocket fire at southern Israel. It left about 1,400 Palestinians dead, including hundreds of civilians, according to Gaza officials and independent rights groups. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians.
NGO Monitor, an Israeli watchdog that focuses on non-governmental organizations critical of Israel, hailed the ruling as "a strong rebuke" to rights groups who had lobbied on behalf of the Palestinian bid.
"International arenas are routinely hijacked for political purposes, but today's decision was markedly different," said Anne Herzberg, legal adviser for NGO Monitor.
Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this story