x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Israel warns UK over war crimes warrants

Israel warns Britain that ties between the two countries are threatened because UK courts keep issuing war crimes warrants against visiting Israeli ministers and officials.

Israel's former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni,  avoided arrest when she cancelled her trip to the UK.
Israel's former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, avoided arrest when she cancelled her trip to the UK.

LONDON // Israel warned Britain yesterday that ties between the two countries were threatened because UK courts keep issuing war crimes warrants against visiting Israeli ministers and officials. In the latest incident, magistrates in central London issued a warrant on Saturday for the arrest of Tzipi Livni, the current opposition leader who was Israel's foreign minister at the time of the Gaza invasion one year ago.

Although the warrant, obtained by pro-Palestinian activists, was withdrawn on Sunday when it emerged that Ms Livni had already cancelled her planned trip to Britain, Israel's foreign ministry yesterday called on the UK government to end the "absurd situation" under which visiting Israeli officials face arrest. In October, Ehud Barak, the defence minister, avoided detention on a visit to the British Labour Party conference after the UK government enhanced the status of his trip to give him diplomatic immunity.

A week later, Moshe Yaalon, one of four deputies to the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, cancelled a planned fund-raising trip to Britain because he feared arrest on war crimes warrants obtained by human rights and pro-Palestinian groups. 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." Britain is one of a diminishing number of European states whose legal system allows for "universal jurisdiction", the prosecution of foreigners for alleged atrocities committed anywhere in the world.

Several other European countries, including Spain and Belgium, have abandoned the principle of universal jurisdiction after pressure from Israel and, more importantly, the United States. The situation with visiting Israelis, though, is becoming a source of increasing embarrassment and irritation to the foreign office in London. In a statement yesterday, it said: "The UK is determined to do all it can to promote peace in the Middle East and to be a strategic partner of Israel.

"To do this, Israel's leaders need to be able to come to the UK for talks with the British government. We are looking urgently at the implications of this case." Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to London, said: "The current situation has become intolerable. It is time that it changed. "I am convinced that the British government will understand that it is time to react and not content itself with declarations."

Aside from this year's warrants, Doron Almog, a retired Israeli general held responsible for the bombing on a Gaza house in which 14 people died, only avoided arrest in 2005 when he was tipped off about the warrant when he landed in London and immediately flew home. The previous year, a British court set a legal precedent when it granted Shaul Mofaz, then Israel's defence minister, immunity from international arrest and trial. Until then, only premiers or foreign ministers had been afforded such protection.

Betty Hunter, the general secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which is based in London, yesterday defended the tactic of issuing warrants, describing it as an effective weapon in the battle to bring Israel to book. "More and more, Israel's political and military leaders are coming to realise that their war crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will not go unpunished. "Tzipi Livni was Israel's foreign minister when Israel launched its horrific attack on Gaza last year, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of women and children.

"Livni held a senior position in a government responsible for horrific war crimes. Justice [Richard] Goldstone made clear in his report to the UN that Israel had serious charges to answer over its massacre in Gaza. We're committed to bringing those responsible for these war crimes to justice." Ms Livni, who had been due to speak at a Jewish National Fund convention in north London on Sunday, said yesterday she had cancelled her trip before she knew about the warrant.

"I have no problem with the world wanting to judge Israel," she said at an Institute for National Securities Studies conference in Israel. "A problem arises the moment IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers are compared to terrorists. "The operation in Gaza was necessary. Operation Cast Lead achieved its goal, which was to restore Israel's deterrence ability." She said: "Israel must do what is right for Israel, regardless of judgments, statements and arrest warrants.

"It's the leadership's duty, and I would repeat each and every decision. "It's true that the pain and grief of a Palestinian and Israeli family are the same thing, but the basic comparison between a terrorist and an IDF soldier is unacceptable." dsapsted@thenational.ae