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Friday, December 18, 2009

Week in review: Israel's fugitive leaders

Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was the latest Israeli leader to narrowly escape being arrested for war crimes this week, after cancelling her trip to the UK where a court issued a warrant for her arrest.

In the wake of the Goldstone report which determined that Israel committed war crimes during the war on Gaza, overseas travel now places many Israeli officials in legal jeopardy.

Allan Baker, a former legal adviser to Israel's foreign ministry told The Jerusalem Post that two out of every three ministers in the current cabinet would also likely be arrested and detained in jail if they set foot in Britain.

The Israeli paper reported: "Britain is one of several west European countries that have passed laws granting it international jurisdiction - that is, the right to try anyone suspected of violating various provisions of international law, no matter where the alleged crimes were committed or the citizenship of the suspect.

"Israel first tasted the sting of international jurisdiction in 2001, when a warrant was issued in Belgium for the arrest of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former army Chief-of-Staff Raphael Eitan and former head of IDF Northern Command, Amos Yaron, for their alleged roles in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut by Christian militiamen. The charges were eventually dropped, and Belgium changed its law to make it more difficult to apply universal jurisdiction.

"But the threat remains in other countries. In 2005, former head of IDF Southern Command Doron Almog narrowly escaped arrest when he was advised to remain on board the plane that had brought him to London and immediately return to Israel."

The Guardian reported: "It is the second time in less than three months that lawyers have gone to Westminster magistrates court asking for a warrant for the arrest of an Israeli politician. In September the court was asked to issue one for the arrest of Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases.

"Barak, who was attending a meeting at the Labour party conference in Brighton, escaped arrest after the Foreign Office told the court that he was a serving minister who would be meeting his British counterparts. The court ruled he enjoyed immunity under the State Immunity Act 1978.

"According to Israeli sources, ministers who wish to visit the UK in a personal capacity have begun asking the Israeli embassy in London to arrange meetings with British officials. These offer legal protection against arrest."

Israel's president Shimon Peres claimed that issuing a warrant for the arrest of an Israeli politician was "biggest political mistakes the UK has ever made", the BBC reported. He suggested it was "high time" the British government changed a law allowing courts to grant such warrants.

The National added: "In a strongly worded statement yesterday, the Israeli foreign ministry said: 'Only actions can put an end to this absurd situation, which would have seemed a comedy of errors were it not so serious.

" 'We appreciate the British government's desire to play a central role in the Middle East peace process, and thus we expected it to translate the importance it gives its relations with Israel into actions.

" 'If Britain does not immediately amend the law allowing arrest warrants to be issued against Israeli officials, the relations between our states will suffer.'"

Sir Geoffrey Bindman, chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights, wrote in The Independent: "It is not at all surprising that the Israeli government is outraged at the attempt - initially successful - to obtain an arrest warrant in Britain against their former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. But their characterisation of it as a 'diplomatic offence' is wide of the mark. Those who come to Britain are subject to its laws.

"It is necessary to step back from the particular case and look at the broader picture. War crimes and crimes against humanity are international crimes transcending national boundaries. Universal jurisdiction to put those accused of them on trial is a logical development of that recognition. Such crimes are unlikely to be redressed in the country where the perpetrators hold political power. If they are not, they can only be adjudicated in courts of another state, or in an international court or tribunal.

"Since the Second World War there has been a steady expansion of legal mechanisms designed to ensure that there is no hiding place for the perpetrators of international crimes. Complying with UN treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, many countries, including the UK, give their courts jurisdiction to try specific crimes committed outside their own territory."

Meanwhile, the Ma'an News Agency reported on Wednesday that the Women's Coalition for Peace had contacted Ms Livni, calling on her to cooperate with international investigations into her role in the assault on Gaza last winter.

"The Israeli organisation wrote in the letter, which was attached to a translated copy of the Goldstone report on alleged war crimes in Gaza, 'We are convinced that if you refer to the report you will understand why British citizens and organizations have turned to the courts with a request to issue a warrant for your arrest.'

"The letter added that the Goldstone report directly refers to remarks by senior political figures in Israel which encouraged indiscriminate attacks on civilians, in contradiction of international law.

"It is in this context that Livni was quoted as saying, on 13 January 2009, 'We have proven to Hamas that the equation has been altered. Israel is a state that, when its citizens are shot at, will respond insanely. And that's a good thing.'"

Al Jazeera noted: "At a security conference in Israel on Tuesday, Livni did not directly address the arrest warrant but defended Israel's conduct during the Gaza war, saying she 'would make the same decisions all over again'.

" 'When the state of Israel has to do the right thing, it has to be done - condemnation or no condemnation, statements or no statements, arrest warrants or no arrest warrants.

" 'This is the role of leadership, and as far as I'm concerned I would repeat each and every decision.'"

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