Ha’aretz is now confirming that the United Kingdom had in fact issued a warrant for former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s arrest — for alleged war crimes committed during Israel’s Gaza offensive, called ‘Operation Cast Lead’:
British sources reported late Monday that though a British court had issued an arrest warrant for Livni over war crimes allegedly committed in Gaza while she served as foreign minister, it annulled it upon discovering she was not in the U.K.
Livni served as foreign minister alongside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak during the Israel Defense Forces offensive in Gaza. The three figures comprised the “troika” of top decision-makers who charted the course of the war.
The Guardian points out the significance of this arrest warrant, and goes on to explain that former Israeli leaders (no longer serving) lose their diplomatic immunity granted under the State Immunity Act:
The warrant marks the first time an Israeli minister or former minister has faced arrest in the UK and is evidence of a growing effort to pursue war crimes allegations under “universal jurisidiction”. Israel rejects these efforts as politically motivated, saying it acted in self-defence against Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza. [...]
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.
Livni, crucially, cannot enjoy any such immunity as she is an ex-minister. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, is in the same position.
The Associated Press recalls how this universal jurisdiction concept was cited by Spain in arresting Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, and how this precedent has given activists in other countries inspiration to petition international courts to try officials for alleged war crimes. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, tells the AP:
“This pleases those who believe that Israeli leaders long have violated international norms with impunity. [...] We cannot talk tough on terrorism and be weak on war crimes,” Doyle said. “So I think the use of universal jurisdiction in these cases is a good thing. Parties in Israel must realize there is a consequence to their behavior. For decades they’ve violated Security Council resolutions and international law with little or no consequence,” he said.
Other Israeli officals have also been forced to cancel their trips to the United Kingdom after being tipped off of possible war crimes arrest warrants:
In 2005 a retired Israeli general, Doron Almog, returned to Israel immediately after landing in London because he was tipped off that British police planned to arrest him. The warrant against Almog — who oversaw the 2002 bombing of a Gaza home in which 14 people were killed along with a leading Palestinian militant — was later canceled.
Other Israeli leaders, including former military chief Moshe Yaalon and ex-internal security chief Avi Dichter, have canceled trips to Britain in recent years for the same reason.
The Guardian now reports that Israel is responding to Tzipi Livni’s war crimes warrant by imposing an Israeli government travel ‘ban’:
Israel hit back at Britain today over the arrest warrant issued for former foreign minister Tzipi Livni for alleged war crimes, warning that until the matter was resolved senior officials would not be visiting the UK.
Israelis prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, called the warrant absurd, the Ynet website reported.
The British ambassador, Tom Phillips, was summoned to the foreign ministry in Jerusalem where a senior Israeli official told him the row over Livni meant that Britain’s ability to play a role in the Middle East peace process had been damaged.
Perhaps Israel would be better served by taking the advice of its own Deputy Prime Minister, who told Ha’aretz:
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor thinks Israel should establish its own independent committee to investigate Israel Defense Forces activity in the Gaza Strip during last winter’s Operation Cast Lead.
“I have faith in the army and it is my duty to protect it, its commanders and its soldiers – and the most effective tool for this is serious self-examination,” Meridor said in a recent interview with Haaretz. “A state that examines itself [protects itself from] harassment. Today, with the development of international law, one of the best means of defense is for a state to investigate itself.”
Which is exactly what Richard Goldstone has been saying, all along:
“I certainly hope that there will be sufficient drive within Israel, within the government and in the general public to force the Israeli government to set up an independent, open inquiry. And it can do it. It’s got a wonderful legal system, its got a great judicial system, its got retired judges who certainly, in my book, would earn the respect of the overwhelming number of people around the world, including the Arab world, who, if they held open, good faith inquiries, would put an end to this.”
Countries which consider themselves to be intrinsically ‘exceptional’ — immune from obeying international laws, and thumb their noses at allegations as serious as war crimes — will naturally become viewed as pariah states.
Now if we could just get someone to investigate Bush Administration war crimes …