21 May 2024

Benjamin Netanyahu condemns war crimes prosecutor for seeking his arrest

5:42 am on 21 May 2024
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (Photo by RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

The International Criminal Court prosecutor has accused Benjamin Netanyahu, his defence minister, and three Hamas leaders of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Photo: AFP / RONEN ZVULUN

By Josef Federman, Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the move by war crimes prosecutor to seek his arrest as a "disgrace" and attack on the Israeli military and all of Israel.

The chief prosecutor of the world's top war crimes court said he was seeking arrest warrants for leaders of Israel and Hamas, including Netanyahu, over actions taken during their seven-month war.

In a statement, Netanyahu also vowed to press ahead with Israel's war against Hamas militants.

Netanyahu said the request for an arrest warrant was "absurd" and accused the prosecution of antisemitism.

"As prime minister of Israel, I reject with disgust the Hague prosecutor's comparison between democratic Israel and the mass murders of Hamas," he said. "No pressure and no decision in any international forum will prevent us from striking those who seek to destroy us."

US President Joe Biden condemned as "outrageous" an attempt by the chief prosecutor of the world's top war crimes to seek arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, along with those of Hamas over actions taken during their seven-month war.

In a sharply worded statement, Biden rejected the International Criminal Court's (ICC) chief prosecutor's to seek the arrest of Netanyahu and Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant, saying "whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence - none - between Israel and Hamas."

"We will always stand with Israel against threats to its security," Biden added.

International Criminal Court announcement

While Netanyahu and his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, do not face imminent arrest, the announcement by the ICC's chief prosecutor was a symbolic blow that deepened Israel's isolation over the war in Gaza. Israeli leaders condemned the move as disgraceful and antisemitic.

The court's prosecutor, Karim Khan, accused Netanyahu, Gallant, and three Hamas leaders - Yehia Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh - of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

A panel of three judges will decide whether to issue the arrest warrants and allow a case to proceed. The judges typically take two months to make such decisions.

Israel is not a member of the court, so even if the arrest warrants are issued, Netanyahu and Gallant do not face any immediate risk of prosecution. But the threat of arrest could make it difficult for the Israeli leaders to travel abroad.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the chief prosecutor's decision against its leaders is "a historic disgrace that will be remembered forever." He said he would work with world leaders to ensure that any such warrants are not enforced on Israel's leaders.

Hamas also denounced the ICC prosecutor's request to arrest its leaders, saying it "equates the victim with the executioner."

Netanyahu has come under heavy pressure at home to end the war sooner than later. Thousands of Israelis have joined weekly demonstrations calling on the government to reach a deal to bring home Israeli hostages in Hamas captivity, fearing that time is running out.

In recent days, the two other members of his war Cabinet, Gallant and Benny Gantz, have threatened to resign if Netanyahu does not spell out a clear postwar vision for Gaza.

But on Monday, Netanyahu received wall-to-wall support as politicians across the spectrum condemned the ICC prosecutor's move. They included Israel's president, Isaac Herzog, and his two main political rivals, Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid.

It is unclear what effect Khan's move will have on Netanyahu's public standing. The possibility of an arrest warrant against Netanyahu, whose popularity has dropped during the war, could give him a boost as Israelis rally behind the flag. But his opponents could also blame him for bringing a diplomatic catastrophe on the country.

Yuval Shany, an expert on international law at Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said it was far more certain that Netanyahu's already troubled international standing could be further weakened.

"This is going to make Netanyahu an outcast, and his ability to move around the world will be seriously compromised," said Shany. Even if the ICC does not issue the arrest warrant, other countries may now be more reluctant to provide support and assistance, he said.

Hamas is already considered an international terrorist group by the West. Both Sinwar and Deif are believed to be hiding in Gaza. But Haniyeh, the supreme leader of the Islamic militant group, is based in Qatar and frequently travels across the region. Qatar, like Israel, is not a member of the ICC.

The latest war between Israel and Hamas began on 7 October, when militants from Gaza crossed into Israel and killed some 1200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 others hostage.

Since then, Israel has waged a brutal campaign to dismantle Hamas in Gaza. More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, at least half of them women and children, according to the latest estimates by Gaza health officials.

The war has triggered a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, displacing roughly 80 percent of the population and leaving hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of starvation, according to UN officials.

Speaking of the Israeli actions, Khan said "the effects of the use of starvation as a method of warfare, together with other attacks and collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza are acute, visible and widely known. ... They include malnutrition, dehydration, profound suffering and an increasing number of deaths among the Palestinian population, including babies, other children, and women."

The United Nations and other aid agencies have repeatedly accused Israel of hindering aid deliveries throughout the war. Israel denies this, saying there are no restrictions on aid entering Gaza and accusing the UN of failing to distribute aid.

Of the Hamas actions on 7 October, Khan, who visited the region in December, said that he saw for himself "the devastating scenes of these attacks and the profound impact of the unconscionable crimes charged in the applications filed today."

In their rampage, Hamas militants gunned down scores of revellers at a dance party and killed entire families as they huddled in their homes. "These acts demand accountability," Khan said.

Israel is also facing a South African case in the International Court of Justice, the UN's top court, accusing Israel of genocide. Israel denies those charges.

The ICC was established in 2002 as the permanent court of last resort to prosecute individuals responsible for the world's most heinous atrocities - war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression.

The UN General Assembly endorsed the ICC, but the court is independent.

Dozens of countries don't accept the court's jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and other crimes. They include Israel, the United States, Russia and China.

The ICC becomes involved when nations are unable or unwilling to prosecute crimes on their territory. Israel argues it has a functioning court system.

The ICC accepted "The State of Palestine" as a member in 2015, a year after the Palestinians accepted the court's jurisdiction.

The court's chief prosecutor at the time announced in 2021 she was opening an investigation into possible crimes on Palestinian territory. Israel often levies accusations of bias at UN and international bodies, and Netanyahu condemned the decision as hypocritical and antisemitic.

In 2020, then US President Donald Trump authorized economic and travel sanctions on the ICC prosecutor and another senior prosecutor. The ICC staff were looking into US and allies' troops for possible war crimes in Afghanistan.

US President Joe Biden lifted the sanctions in 2021.

Last year, the court issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin on charges of responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. Russia responded by issuing its own arrest warrants for Khan and ICC judges.

- AP

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