The International Criminal Court has halted 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.

"The office [of the prosecutor] has assessed that it is for the relevant bodies at the UN or the Assembly of State Parties to make a legal determination whether Palestine qualifies as a state for the purpose of acceding to the Rome Statute [the court's founding treaty]," the prosecutor's office said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Palestinian Authority in January 2009 accepted the Hague-based court's jurisdiction, asking prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo to launch a war crimes investigation against Israel following the Gaza war.

It wanted Moreno-Ocampo to look into "acts committed on the territory of Palestine" going as far back as July 2002. Moreno-Ocampo's office then opened a preliminary probe to see if there were grounds to proceed with an investigation.

Tuesday's statement, however, said the court's reach was not based on a principle of universal jurisdiction and it could open investigations only if asked to do so by either the UN Security Council or by a recognised state.

Palestine does not have full UN membership, though it has asked for it.

'Dangerous decision'

Human rights groups on Tuesday strongly criticised the prosecutor's statement, while Israel hailed the move.

"Today's decision appears to close the door for now on access to the ICC for victims of international crimes committed in the Palestinian Territories, at least until the General Assembly recognises Palestinian statehood," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said.

Marek Marczynski, head of Amnesty International's International Justice campaign, added: "This dangerous decision opens the ICC to accusations of political bias and is inconsistent with the independence of the ICC." 

"It also breaches the Rome Statute, which clearly states that such matters should be considered by the institution's judges."

The military offensive left between 1,166 to 1,440 Palestinians dead, depending on the source.

"Israel welcomes the decision on the lack of ICC jurisdiction," the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement. "Israel made it clear in the first place that the ICC has no jurisdiction in this matter."

"While Israel welcomes the decision on the lack of ICC jurisdiction, it has reservations regarding some of the legal pronouncements and assumptions in the prosecutor's statement," it added, without elaborating.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies