JERUSALEM – A group of Israeli military officers called off an official visit to Britain last week, fearing they could face possible arrest on war crimes charges, officials said Tuesday.
The four unidentified officers, holding ranks from major to colonel, are the latest in a string of Israeli politicians and military officials to be forced to call off travel to Britain because of fear of legal prosecution.
Britain is one of the European pioneers of universal jurisdiction, a broad legal concept that empowers judges to issue arrest warrants for nearly any visitor accused of committing war crimes anywhere in the world.
Pro-Palestinian activists have sought to use this concept to press charges against Israelis involved in military operations in Palestinian territories, particularly since last year's Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. British officials have vowed to change the law, which has severely strained relations with Israel.
The Israeli delegation had been invited to visit by the British army. But officials said they were forced to call off the trip after their British counterparts could not guarantee that they would not be arrested.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter has become a sore point in relations with Britain. Neither the Israeli military nor the British government would comment.
Tuesday's announcement came as Britain's attorney general, Patricia Janet Scotland, was in Israel on a private visit. Scotland was scheduled to deliver a lecture at an Israeli university later Tuesday, though it was not clear if she would address the war crimes issue.
The British government has pledged to reform its war crimes law so its judges could no longer issue secret arrest warrants against Israeli officials or military officers. But no change has yet been put into effect.
Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, raised the issue in a meeting with Scotland on Tuesday. In a statement released after the meeting, Ayalon said he made it clear that the situation is "intolerable," and said "this makes normal relations between the two countries difficult."
Last month, pro-Palestinian activists persuaded a London judge to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli politician Tzipi Livni, who was foreign minister during the war in Gaza last year. The warrant was withdrawn after Livni canceled her trip, but the matter badly strained relations between Britain and Israel.
More than 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed in the three-week offensive, which was launched to quash years of rocket attacks on southern Israel. Thirteen Israelis were also killed. A U.N. investigation has accused both Israel and Hamas militants of committing war crimes during the fighting.
The threat of arrest has forced several former security officials to call off trips to London, including a former general who remained holed up on an airplane at Heathrow Airport in order to avoid arrest. Last fall, Defense Minister Ehud Barak fended off an arrest attempt by successfully arguing he enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
In Britain, pro-Palestinian groups have condemned moves to reform the law.
"We believe no attempt should be made (to change the law)," said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. "There's no reason why Israel should be singled out for special treatment. If they're accused of war crimes, we have a duty — and legislation — to prosecute."