Prosecutors at the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) will open a preliminary inquiry into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories, the first formal step that could lead to charges against officials there and in Israel, the court has said.

They will determine whether preliminary findings merit a full investigation into alleged atrocities, which could result in charges against individuals on either the Israeli or Palestinian side.

"A preliminary examination is not an investigation but a process of examining the information available in order to reach a fully informed determination on whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation pursuant to the criteria established by the Rome Statute," the court's statement said on Friday.

ICC opens initial inquiry into possible war crimes in Palestine

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman condemned the ICC’s decision as "scandalous".

In a statement, Lieberman said that the sole purpose of the preliminary examination was to "try to harm Israel's right to defend itself from terror".

He said the decision was "solely motivated by political anti-Israel considerations," adding that he would recommend against cooperating with the probe.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Ramallah, Ammar Hijazi, a Palestinian foreign ministry official, said the Palestinian Authority believed that all necessary aspects were featured in the case.

"The gravity aspect is there, as civilians were targeted [in the war in Gaza]," he said.

"Palestine is ready to fully cooperate if there are any violations commited during the war by the Palestinian side as well."

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki told the AFP news agency: "Everything is going according to plan, no state and nobody can now stop this action we requested ... In the end, a full investigation will follow the preliminary one."

Palestine joining ICC

The United States on Friday condemned the ICC decision as "tragic irony".

"We strongly disagree with the ICC prosecutor's action today," State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said in a statement.

"It is a tragic irony that Israel, which has withstood thousands of terrorist rockets fired at its civilians and its neighbourhoods, is now being scrutinised by the ICC," he added.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recently confirmed that the Palestinians will formally become a member of the ICC on April 1 and the court officials said that jurisdiction would date back to June 13, 2014.

This means the court's prosecutor could investigate the 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip in July and August 2014, during which more than 2,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed, according to Gazan medical sources. Israel said 67 soldiers and six civilians died in the same war.

The ICC handles war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It could exercise jurisdiction over such crimes committed by anyone on Palestinian territory. Israel is not a an ICC member, but its citizens could be tried on accusations of crimes.

Earlier in January, the Palestinians delivered to the UN headquarters in New York documents to join the Rome Statute of the ICC and other international treaties, in a move that has heightened tensions with Israel.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies