On Sunday, Doron Almog, a retired Israeli army general, stayed on board a plane at London’s airport when he heard he would be arrested. A human rights group filed a complaint under a law that gives Britain the power to charge foreigners with war crimes, even if Britain or its citizens were not involved.
Almog was the Gaza army chief in 2002, when the Israeli air force dropped a one-tonne bomb that killed Gaza Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh and 14 others, including nine children.
Israel is concerned that ex-officers and even soldiers could face arrest in the countries with such war crimes laws – Britain, Belgium, Spain and Germany. That could have far-reaching effects. Many ex-officers are senior officials in companies doing business abroad. Almog was planning to raise money in Britain for brain-damaged children.
The Israeli army and other ministries are consulting the Foreign Ministry before sending officials abroad, said Mark Regev, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
“In practice those states are very reluctant to use this power which they have given themselves”
“It’s troubling,” Regev said. “This is really the abuse and the manipulation of the legal system to advance extremist political agenda.”
High on the list of activists is the current Israeli army chief of staff, Leitenant General Dan Halutz, who was air force commander at the time of the Shehadeh raid. Also, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, who was chief of staff, could be targeted.
Legal authorities have been hesitant to prosecute such cases, said Ruth Lapidoth, an Israeli expert on international law.
“In practice those states are very reluctant to use this power which they have given themselves … because they think it’s more appropriate … that there be a connection between the crime or the perpetrator or the victim and the state,” Lapidoth said.
A case filed in a Belgian court in 2003 against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regarding his involvement with Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon led to a lengthy diplomatic dispute between Israel and Belgium, until the Belgian Supreme Court dismissed the charges.
US pressure forced Belgium to drastically amend its law after some cases named Vice-President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said she would use similar diplomatic channels to persuade the four European countries -all of them Israel’s allies – to amend their laws.
“Britain also has soldiers in Iraq and things are not so simple for them either,” Livni told Israel Radio. “In the end, it (the legislation) can act as a boomerang that can hurt their own people.”
Kate Maynard, an attorney for the Hickman and Rose law firm representing the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, confirmed the firm is investigating other officers but refused to elaborate. She also would not say if additional arrest warrants had been issued.
High on the suspected war crimes
The Palestinian groups leading this fight would go after the highest-ranking officers, because they want publicity, Livni said.
Ishai Menuhin, a spokesman for a dovish Israeli group that has sought to prosecute Halutz, confirmed they helped collect evidence to present to international courts after repeated appeals to the Israeli justice system hit a dead end.
Almog’s fear of getting off the airplane in London’s Heathrow airport was “a welcome precedent”, Menuhin told Israel Radio.
“In the future, every soldier today in the army who participates in an operation will consider the possibility that even if the Israeli high court refuses to investigate them, there will be a court someplace else that will be willing to do it,” he said.