The Hague, Netherlands – As Israelis voted in a repeat general election, a Dutch court held a hearing on a war crimes case against the ex-general challenging incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Hague District Court weighed on Tuesday if it should hear a lawsuit brought by a Dutch-Palestinian man seeking damages from Benny Gantz and a co-defendant for their role in the killing of six of his relatives during the 2014 Gaza War.
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On July 20, 2014, Ismail Ziada lost his mother, three brothers, a sister-in-law, and a 12-year-old nephew when their family home was bombed by the Israeli air force as part of Operation Protective Edge. A visitor was also killed in the air raid.
Ziada, who was born in Gaza and lives in the Netherlands, filed a civil lawsuit in 2018 seeking compensation from Gantz, the chief of staff of Israel’s military at the time of the bombing, and then air force commander Amir Eshel.
Ziada alleged the attack violated international humanitarian law because it deliberately targeted civilians, was disproportionate and happened without prior warning.
The Israeli army said the house was a Hamas “command-and-control centre” and it killed members of its military wing and Islamic Jihad fighters and, therefore, was proportional.
Ziada said one of his brothers was involved with Hamas but was not an active member.
Asked to comment on the allegations, Gantz told Al Jazeera in a written statement, “The Israeli Defense Force is the most moral army in the world and I am proud to have served in it for almost 40 years and to have commanded it”.
Neither Gantz nor Eshel were present at the hearing.
Tuesday’s session addressed a motion filed by Gantz and Eshel’s lawyers asking the court to dismiss the case. They argued the ex-commanders were immune from a foreign court because they acted in an official capacity and the Dutch court had no jurisdiction over the case because Ziada could sue in Israel.
Dutch courts can exercise universal jurisdiction over war crimes, provided the accuser cannot get a fair trial elsewhere.
Ziada told the court the bombing had “permanently scarred” him. He called the arguments by the defendants’ lawyers “farcical and vicious”, saying awarding immunity to the ex-generals would mean he would have “no recourse to justice at all”, and it would “do harm to the very concept of justice”.
Thom Dieben, a lawyer for Gantz and Eshel, told the judges ruling on military acts by Israel was “not up to a Dutch judge” and it would be contrary to principles of immunity and sovereignty.
He said “the Israeli judge is the appropriate forum” to rule on the case.
Ahead of the hearing, Ziada’s lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld, said Palestinians from Gaza could not receive fair treatment by Israeli courts.
“[Under Israeli law] anybody from Gaza is an ‘enemy subject’ and an enemy does not have access to a judge. That shuts the door,” she told Al Jazeera.
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday’s hearing “inspires hope that those involved in serious crimes will have to answer for their actions at a fair trial”.
“Palestinian victims have faced a wall of impunity within Israeli courts for decades. Israeli military investigations and hearings – when they do take place – are generally a whitewash operation,” he told Al Jazeera.
Gantz has enjoyed a rapid ascent in Israeli politics. As the leader of the Blue and White alliance, he is now the strongest challenger to Netanyahu in his bid to prolong his 13 years in office.
In a series of campaign videos released ahead of April’s general elections, which failed to produce a coalition, Gantz boasted of killing 1,364 Palestinian “terrorists” and sending parts of Gaza “back to the Stone Age” during the 2014 Gaza War.
An inquiry by the United Nations found 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed during the 51-day offensive, a third of them children. Palestinian armed groups killed six Israeli civilians in July and August of 2014, the UN Gaza inquiry said.
Ziada is seeking 536, 600 euros [$592,200] in damages.
The Dutch court will decide on January 29, 2020 whether to proceed with the case.