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Israelis may stay home to avoid arrest in Europe

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Israel is seriously considering restricting travel to Europe by its senior officials and military officers, fearing they might be arrested in the wake of a disputed U.N. report that accuses the Jewish state of targeting civilians in its Gaza war earlier this year.

Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, told The Washington Times on Monday, "Currently there is no specific advisory and different senior officers are continuing their travel as planned. However, we are in touch and we are discussing with the foreign ministry and other legal authorities whether we need to take additional steps like potential restrictions of travel."

Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, a retired Israeli general who now serves as minister for strategic affairs, canceled a trip to London out of concern that he might face an arrest warrant, said Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday harshly criticized the U.N. report, written by a team headed by South African Judge Richard Goldstone, "as distorted" and vowed not to permit the Israeli officials who launched the Gaza war "to arrive at the International Court in The Hague." The U.N. Security Council will discuss the report on Wednesday.

Israel launched the offensive to stop the militant Palestinian group Hamas from firing rockets on Israeli cities from Gaza, which Hamas controls. While the war is viewed in Israel as a tactical success, its large civilian death toll - estimated at 926 by Palestinian rights groups and at least 295 by Israel - has created significant diplomatic fallout.

Not only do Israeli leaders and senior military officers face potential legal problems in Europe, but Israel's long-held goal of normalizing relations with Arab and Muslim states has been set back.

On Sunday, Turkey - a rare Muslim country with close military ties with Israel - canceled an annual air force drill that would have included Israel.

Qatar, a Gulf state that kept an unofficial embassy, known as an interest section, in Israel long after most Arab states closed theirs, shuttered it in January, citing the Gaza war.

In March, the queen or sheikha of Qatar, Mozah Bint Nasser al Missned, hired a U.S. public relations firm, Fenton Communications. According to the contract filed with the Justice Department, Fenton will support an "international public opinion awareness campaign that advocates for the accountability for those who participated in attacks on schools in Gaza."

The Gaza war also has hurt ties with Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel.

Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, said, "Middle Easterners are fed up with Israel's excessive use of force, most recently in Lebanon and Gaza. This anger has now extended beyond the region to the international community because the Israeli practices are recurrent in flagrant violation of the rules of war and basic human rights."

While the Goldstone report accuses both Israel and Hamas of suspected war crimes, Israeli officials see themselves as the biggest targets and charge that Mr. Goldstone's findings effectively deprive the Jewish state of the right to self-defense.

One of the report's recommendations is that countries that have signed the Geneva Conventions "start criminal investigations in national courts, using universal jurisdiction, where there is sufficient evidence of the commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Where so warranted following investigation, alleged perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted in accordance with internationally recognized standards of justice."

This concept was tested last month when 16 Palestinians in Britain asked a London court to issue an arrest warrant for Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister who also served in that position during the Gaza war in December and January. Deputy District Judge Daphne Wickham ruled that Mr. Barak had diplomatic immunity.

Nevertheless, Mr. Ya'alon last month "decided not to go to Britain because he learned that there was an attempt in the United Kingdom to try to press charges against him for war crimes following the attempt with Defense Minister Ehud Barak a week earlier," Mr. Peled said.

The Goldstone report was commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body that includes many authoritarian states, such as Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia. The U.N. panel has focused much attention on Israel in recent years, with no similar investigations into abuses such as Sudan's campaign against Darfur, Iran's execution of minors or the Sri Lankan campaign against the Tamil Tigers.

Israeli and many Western critics of the Goldstone report say it ignores the fact that Hamas sought to increase civilian casualties by launching rockets and placing military positions amid the civilian population.

Ms. Leibovich said the Israel Defense Forces sought to minimize those casualties and consulted attorneys when decisions were made about targeting specific buildings in Gaza from the air. Given that Gaza is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, however, civilian casualties were inevitable.

A senior Israeli official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing ongoing diplomacy, warned that there could be repercussions for Israeli relations with European countries that seek to arrest Israeli officials because of the Gaza war.

"There is ongoing work with Spain, Norway, Britain and other countries," the official said. "It is an ongoing effort to explain the dangers of universal jurisdiction [allowing third parties to take court action involving disputes to which they were not a party]. This should be about Somalia and Sudan who have no ability or interest to investigate themselves."

This official added that there also could be implications for Israeli cooperation with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank.

Earlier this month, Shalom Kital, an aide to Mr. Barak, said Israel would deny the necessary portion of the radio spectrum for a cell phone company contract in the West Bank if the Palestinian Authority did not drop its request to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court in light of the Goldstone Report.

The report gives Israel six months to investigate the charges before recommending that the matter be sent to that court.

Mr. Netanyahu also warned Monday that Israel would be less prone to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians if its officials face prosecution over the Gaza war.

"Israel will not take risks for peace if it can't defend itself," he said.