ICC seeks arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Sinwar

Prosecutor Karim Khan applies for arrest warrants for five people in connection with the Israel-Gaza war

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Yahya Sinwar of Hamas. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

There are “reasonable grounds” to believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears criminal responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has said.

In a statement issued on Monday, Karim Khan said he was also seeking arrest warrants for leaders of Hamas.

Mr Khan said he believes Mr Netanyahu's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and three senior Hamas officials – Yahya Sinwar, the head of the militant group; Mohammed Diab Ibrahim Al Masri (also known as Mohammed Deif), commander in chief; and Ismail Haniyeh, the head of its political bureau, are all also responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza and Israel.

A panel of three ICC judges will consider whether or not to accept the applications. They take on average two months to consider the evidence and determine if the proceedings can move forward.

If granted, the warrant means that technically any of the 124 ICC member states would be obliged to arrest Mr Netanyahu and the four others if they travelled to their countries.

But while the warrant could complicate some travel for Mr Netanyahu, the court has no mechanism to enforce its warrants, relying on its members to play ball.

Speaking of the Israeli actions, Mr Khan said in a statement that “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.”

He added: “We submit that the crimes against humanity charged were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the Palestinian civilian population pursuant to sate policy.

“These crimes, in our assessment, continue to this day.”

Of the Hamas actions on October 7, he said he had seen for himself “the devastating scenes of these attacks and the profound impact of the unconscionable crimes charged in the applications filed today”.

“Speaking with survivors, I heard how the love within a family, the deepest bonds between a parent and a child, were contorted to inflict unfathomable pain through calculated cruelty and extreme callousness. These acts demand accountability.”

Benny Gantz, a former military chief and member of Israel’s war cabinet with Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gallant, criticised Mr Khan’s announcement, saying Israel fights with “one of the strictest” moral codes and has a robust judiciary capable of investigating itself.

“The state of Israel is waging one of the just wars fought in modern history following a reprehensible massacre perpetrated by terrorist Hamas on October 7,” he said.

“The prosecutor’s position to apply for arrest warrants is in itself a crime of historic proportion to be remembered for generations.”

Israeli opposition leader, Yair Lapid, said the latest development was “a disaster”.

However, Israeli National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, urged Mr Netanyahu to ignore the ICC and Mr Khan, deeming both anti-Semitic. He said the Gaza war should intensify until Hamas is defeated.

Rumours the court was about to take action had been circulating for weeks, prompting Mr Netanyahu to publish his reaction beforehand.

Israel would “never accept” the ICC's “outrageous” rulings, he said in a message on X. “We will not bow to it.”

A Hamas official said the ICC'S decision “equates the victim with the executioner” and encourages Israel to “continue its war of extermination”.

Two hundred days of Israel-Gaza war – in pictures

US President Joe Biden blasted the ICC's move, calling it “outrageous”.

“And let me be clear: whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence – none – between Israel and Hamas,” Mr Biden said.

“We will always stand with Israel against threats to its security.”

The State Department said the ICC has no jurisdiction over the issue, and that Mr Khan has “rushed” to seek these arrest warrants against Israel, without giving the country's legal system “a full and timely opportunity” to conduct its own investigations.

“There are also deeply troubling process questions,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “Despite not being a member of the court, Israel was prepared to co-operate with the prosecutor."

The UK government said that seeking arrest warrants would not help achieve a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza.

A UK government representative said: “We do not believe that seeking warrants will help get hostages out, get aid in, or deliver a sustainable ceasefire.

“As we have said from the outset, we do not think the ICC has jurisdiction in this case. The UK has not yet recognised Palestine as a state, and Israel is not a state party to the Rome Statute.”

The Czech Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, called the court's actions “completely unacceptable”.

However, Hadja Lahbib, the Belgian Foreign Minister, said “crimes committed in Gaza must be prosecuted at the highest level, regardless of the perpetrators”.

“Belgium supports the work of the ICC. The request submitted by the court’s prosecutor, Karim Khan, for arrest warrants against both Hamas and Israeli officials is an important step in the investigation of the situation in Palestine,” she said.

Specialist war crimes lawyer Catriona Murdoch, who is also the Global Rights Compliance Vice President, told The National legal action will take years.

“It raises the stakes in terms of pressure on Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gallant to respect international humanitarian law,” she added.

“It also sends a stark reminder to Israel’s allies that no one is above the law.”

Director of think tank the Counter Extremism Project, Hans-Jakob Schindler, called the request for arrest warrants “powerless” and questioned whether they would be enforced if they are issued as they are “very unlikely to ever travel to a country in which the ICC has jurisdiction”.

Director of think tank the Henry Jackson Society Alan Mendosa added: “This is the start of an arrest warrant process, not the end, and there will be no consequences for Israeli leaders unless and until the ICC judges agree to issue them.”

Last week, Israel defended its attack on the south of Gaza against claims of genocide, telling the UN’s highest court that any state would do the same.

Denying a claim by South Africa that Rafah is the “endgame” of Gaza’s destruction, Israel said it entered the city to bring down a “military stronghold for Hamas”.

It told the International Court of Justice it wishes no harm to Palestinian civilians and that Hamas militants were responsible for the war's “suffering and pain”.

The Israeli government had been worried about possible arrest warrants for its leadership and the US has been publicly opposed to any ICC investigation.

“We’ve been really clear about the ICC investigation, we do not support it,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said last month. “We don’t believe that they have the jurisdiction.”

The ICC investigates and tries individuals charged with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.

Israel has not ratified the ICC’s statute and does not recognise its jurisdiction. The “State of Palestine” has been a member of the court since 2015. The US has never been a party to the ICC.

The ICC prosecutor in 2021 opened a probe into Israel as well as Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups for possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories.

UAE drop aid into Gaza – in pictures

Mr Khan has said this investigation now “extends to the escalation of hostilities and violence since the attacks that took place on October 7, 2023 “.

He has also called several times for all hostages in Gaza to be released and warned against Israeli military action in Rafah.

“All wars have rules and the laws applicable to armed conflict cannot be interpreted so as to render them hollow or devoid of meaning,” he said in February.

Last year, the court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes related to the alleged abduction of children from Ukraine, a move that was dismissed by the Kremlin.

The court has issued a total of 42 arrest warrants since being founded in 2002. Half, or 21 suspects, have been taken into custody. It has secured 10 convictions, with four acquittals.

Updated: May 21, 2024, 6:29 AM