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Politics - Not Law - will decide whether Israel faces war crimes charges

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Israel has been sent into a tailspin by a ruling last week from the war crimes court in The Hague. Senior Israeli officials, including possibly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, can now be held accountable for violations of the laws of war in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The decision by judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) does not ensure Israelis will be put on trial for war crimes - not yet, at least. But after years of delay, it does settle the question of whether the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza fall under the court's jurisdiction. They do, say the judges.

That the door is now open for Israelis to be investigated for war crimes is the reason Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum responded so angrily to the ruling. The court's chief prosecutor has already completed a preliminary inquiry, in which she concluded there was a legal basis for a full investigation.

Perhaps the most preposterous - if entirely predictable - of the reactions to the ICC's decision came from Netanyahu himself.

At the weekend, he falsely declared in a video in English, intended for foreign audiences, that the ICC was investigating Israel for what he called "fake war crimes" - and then attributed its imagined actions to "pure antisemitism". He also threw in a reference to the Nazi Holocaust for good measure.

There was no little irony to his claims. On Friday, Netanyahu denounced the judges' ruling as proving that the ICC was "a political body and not a judicial institution". In fact, it is Netanyahu who is playing politics, by character-assassinating the court in what should be a purely legal and judicial matter. He hopes to use antisemitism smears, Israel's favoured tactic, to keep the ICC's investigators at bay.

Court officials have already shown an interest in pursuing three separate lines of inquiry: Israel's attacks on Gaza that have left large numbers of Palestinian civilians dead; the repeated lethal shooting of Palestinian protesters at Gaza's perimeter fence; and decades of illegal Israeli settlement-building on occupied land, which has often entailed the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Attack on aid boat

Whatever Netanyahu's current protestations, the truth is that Israel's own legal teams have long advised that its military commanders, government ministers and senior administrators are vulnerable to prosecution. That is why they have travelled for many years with a special "panic button" on their phones to alert local diplomatic staff of the threat of arrest at a foreign airport.

Just such an incident occurred in 2013, when former navy commander Eli Marom hit the button after he wrongly suspected border officials at London's Heathrow airport were preparing to arrest him under so-called "universal jurisdiction" laws.

Three years earlier, Marom had approved a lethal attack in international waters by navy commandos on an aid convoy of ships trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Marom had reason to be nervous. Earlier, in 2005, a retired general, Doron Almog, hid on an El Al plane for two hours after landing at Heathrow before quickly taking off again, to avoid a UK arrest warrant over the demolition of 59 Palestinian homes. Scotland Yard reportedly allowed Almog to escape rather than engage in a gun battle trying to arrest him.

In addition, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was forced to cancel a visit to the UK in 2009 over fears she would be arrested for her part months earlier in green-lighting a three-week attack on Gaza that killed some 1,400 Palestinians.

In fact, Israel knows enough about which of its senior officials have broken international law - and how - that last summer it compiled a secret list of hundreds who were most likely to be investigated for war crimes.

Bid to terrorise court

But while Israel is only too aware of what its top war crimes suspects have been up to, Netanyahu is right to observe that last week's ruling by the ICC is a political one.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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