Tuesday, December 15, 2009

British court issued Gaza arrest warrant for former Israeli minister Tzipi Livni.

When Tzipi Livni announced plans to visit the UK a British court issued a warrant for her arrest, only to later withdraw it when it found that she was not in the country. Livni later canceled her appearance, but the issuing of a warrant shows that the notion of "universal jurisdiction" is taking hold and that efforts to hold Livni and Olmert to account for the civilian deaths during Operation Cast Lead are not as fanciful as some people would like to believe.

Israel rejects these efforts as politically motivated, saying it acted in self-defence against Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.

Livni, head of the opposition Kadima party, played a key role in decisions made before and during the three-week offensive. Palestinians claim 1,400 were killed, mostly civilians; Israel counted 1,166 dead, the majority of them combatants.

No one involved in the Westminster episode was prepared to confirm, on the record, what had transpired in a chaotic series of highly sensitive legal moves. But a pro-Palestinian group welcomed news of the abortive move as "long overdue".

The Foreign Office, clearly deeply embarrassed by the episode, said in a statement: "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."

It is typical of the Foreign Office that they should put "pursuing peace" - something which no-one appears to be currently doing in the Middle East - before holding war criminals to account.

It always appears to me as if war crimes are only ever committed by people like Saddam; whenever war crimes are committed by our allies we suddenly find a dozen reasons as to why there are more important things to pursue than prosecution of such crimes.

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.

But there is a definite change regarding the way the Israelis are regarded since Operation Cast Lead. Internationally, especially since the UN endorsed the Goldstone report, one gets the distinct feeling that the days of the Israelis doing whatever they want in the Occupied Territories, without fear of reprisal, are most definitely over.

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