Israeli officials ‘fear war crimes arrests’ after ICC decision

Demonstrators carry banners outside the International Criminal Court, ICC, rear, urging the court to prosecute Israel's army for war crimes in The Hague, Netherlands, November 29, 2019 (AP)

The National  /  December 22, 2019

The court’s ruling to move forward with a potential investigation could open up government officials and generals to prosecution.

Israeli officials are increasingly worried about the potential for global arrest warrants that could be issued in relation to war crimes after the International Criminal Court signalled on Friday that it would press ahead with a full investigation into Israel’s conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The decision has heightened fears in Israel that top government and military figures involved in Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and its three offensives in the Gaza Strip, will now be opened up to investigations, according to local media reports.

Such figures could include Israel’s prime minister, current and former defence ministers, military chiefs and spy chiefs. The court only deals with the prosecution of individuals involved in war crimes, not states as a whole.

Israel’s hard-right government has said that it will not cooperate with any probe. But officials fear it could prevent members of the Israeli elite from travelling, and that it could even target low-level members of the Israeli military, according to a report published by Israeli broadcaster Channel 13.

Before the probe can open, the court’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda requested a ruling on its jurisdiction over the territory that would be investigated, delaying any action for now. She said she required that authority because of the “unique and highly contested legal and factual issues attaching to this situation”.

She said that she ultimately wished to proceed with an investigation, and did not require any authorisation from judges to open a probe as there had been a referral from the Palestinians, who joined the court in 2015.

“I am satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation into the situation in Palestine,” she said in a statement.

“In brief, I am satisfied that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip,” she added, without specifying the perpetrators of the alleged crimes.

But it is a landmark decision that was met by fury in Israel and criticism in Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the decision made the Hague-based court, which Israel has refused to sign up to since its creation in 2002, a “political tool”.

The US also condemned the ICC’s decision.

“We firmly oppose this and any other action that seeks to target Israel unfairly,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of Washington’s top ally in the region.

“We do not believe the Palestinians qualify as a sovereign state, and they therefore are not qualified to obtain full membership, or participate as a state in international organizations, entities, or conferences, including the ICC.”

Israel and the United States have both refused to sign up to the court, which was set up in 2002 to be the only global tribunal trying the world’s worst crimes, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Palestinians hailed the move as another step towards justice in their bid to have Israeli officials punished for crimes committed in its 52-year occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and its military action in Gaza that has left thousands of Palestinians dead.

“Palestine welcomes this step as a long overdue step to move the process forward towards an investigation, after nearly five long and difficult years of preliminary examination,” the Palestinian Authority, a limited self-rule body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said in a statement.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said the ICC decision was “a dark day in the history of Israel”.

The ICC’s preliminary investigation has looked at the 2014 war which left 2,251 dead on the Palestinian side, the majority civilians, and 74 on the Israeli side, most of them soldiers.

It has also looked at violence near the Israel-Gaza border in 2018.

Earlier this month, the ICC prosecutor refused to press charges over a deadly 2010 Israeli raid on a flotilla bringing aid to Gaza, and urged that probe to be shut.

Nine Turkish citizens died in May 2010 when Israeli marines stormed the Mavi Marmara, among eight ships trying to break a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. One more died in hospital in 2014.

The ICC has publicly indicted 44 individuals, issuing arrest warrants for 36 more and summoning 8 others.