JERUSALEM – The Israeli government and military have retained high-powered international lawyers and set up a joint task force to fend off attempts by Palestinians and their supporters to try Israeli officials on war crimes charges abroad.
For nearly a decade, activists have turned to courts outside Israel in an effort to try Israeli political and military officials outside the jurisdiction of their own courts. While none of the attempts has succeeded, they could intensify further after a U.N. report accusing the Israeli military of committing war crimes during its devastating offensive in the Gaza Strip in December and January.
In a sign of what could lie ahead, British activists this week attempted to have Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrested on war crimes charges for his role in the Gaza war. A court rejected the request.
Concerned that government officials and military officers traveling abroad could face war crimes charges, an interministerial team joined by legal experts from the military is in place to protect officials and officers involved in Israeli military operations, a government official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The U.N. report accused Israel of using excessive force and endangering civilians. Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the offensive, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian officials and human rights groups. Thirteen Israelis were also killed. The report also said Palestinian militants had committed war crimes by targeting civilians.
Speaking at a meeting of Israel's Cabinet on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the report, saying it gave "total legitimacy to terrorists shooting at civilians."
The report, he added, "will strike a fatal blow against the peace process, because Israel will not be able to take additional steps and take risks for the sake of peace if denied its right to self-defense."
Israel has rejected all war crimes allegations. It says most of the dead in Gaza were armed militants, though it has not provided proof, and says civilians were hurt because Hamas fighters took cover in residential areas.
So far, the cases abroad have invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction, which argues that some crimes are so serious that their alleged perpetrators can be tried outside their own states.
Still, each case has to be addressed individually because legal systems vary from country to country. The Israeli task force has a battery of lawyers in place abroad to help them deal with specific cases as they arise, the government official said. The task force was first assembled years ago to deal with charges related to Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza but could be forced to spring into action if new cases arise.
In Barak's case, he has diplomatic immunity from arrest as a senior government minister.
The defense minister is head of Israel's Labor Party and he had traveled to Britain to attend the annual conference of that country's Labour Party. Tipped off to his visit, two Palestinian human rights groups put together a case against him. Barak termed the attempt "absurd."
It was the latest in a string of attempts by Palestinian activists to target Israeli leaders and military commanders with war crimes allegations.
In 2001, activists tried to bring then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to trial in Belgium in connection with a 1982 massacre in two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The case was dismissed after changes in Belgian law.
In 2005, retired Israeli Gen. Doron Almog stayed aboard a plane at London's Heathrow airport and returned to Israel after he was tipped off that police were outside to arrest him in connection with operations carried out in 2002, when he was commander of the Israeli army in Gaza.
Earlier this year, a Spanish court shelved a judge's investigation of seven current or former Israeli officials involved in a Gaza airstrike that killed a Hamas militant and 14 civilians. The court sided with prosecutors who said Spain lacked jurisdiction.
Activists have also sought to arrest another defense minister and two former Israeli military chiefs in Britain and, in one case, New Zealand. Fear of arrest also led a Cabinet minister to turn down an invitation to visit Britain in 2005 and prompted a former Gaza commander to cancel plans to study in Britain.