Pressure mounts on Israel at home and abroad as ICC seeks arrest warrants

US President Joe Biden criticises move against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant as 'outrageous'

Israel's war in Gaza continues to rage amid rising global anger over the threat to civilians in the enclave. AFP
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Israeli officials have criticised the International Criminal Court over its announcement that it is seeking arrest warrants for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

The court's chief prosecutor Karim Khan said the Israeli officials were part of the action over their conduct during the Gaza war. Arrest warrants have also been sought for Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed Deif, over their roles in the October 7 attack on Israel that led to the latest conflict.

Mr Khan’s announcement piles new pressure on Mr Netanyahu’s government as it battles mounting international criticism over its conduct during the Gaza war and internal political divisions over whether Israel should prioritise eradicating Hamas militarily or securing a deal to release hostages.

The news also paves the way for the much-feared prospect in Israel of an international body finding the country guilty of breaking humanitarian law, which would serve a major blow and further damage its global reputation.

Responding to the announcement, Mr Netanyahu said on Monday that Mr Khan’s intention to obtain a warrant was “absurd” and indicative of a “new anti-Semitism”.

“With what chutzpah do you dare compare the monsters of Hamas to the soldiers of the [Israeli military], the most moral army in the world?” Mr Netanyahu said.

His comments came alongside condemnations of the ICC by Israeli officials across the political spectrum. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said on Monday that the decision was a “disaster” and called on the US Congress to condemn it.

But some of Mr Netanyahu’s critics say he partly responsible for the damage to Israel’s international standing.

Israeli Labour politician Gilad Kariv said that the prime minister “led the state of Israel to a diplomatic tsunami that will be very difficult to recover from, and caused serious harm to national security”.

Former commander of the Israeli military’s law school Robert Neufeld told The National that “stupid statements by [Israel’s] leadership at the beginning of the war have led us to a very problematic place”.

“Once those words are out in the open it’s easy to use them as some sort of proof that you have intent to commit war crimes,” Mr Neufeld added.

In the immediate aftermath of October 7, Mr Gallant promised a “total siege” on Gaza.

“There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly,” he said.

The comments and others made by officials including Mr Netanyahu have been referred to by South Africa in a parallel genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice.

A source at Israel’s Justice Ministry told outlet Ynet that officials were furious at the government.

“It will quickly influence the economic agreements and the arms agreements of Israel,” the source said. “This places the mark of Cain on Israel, much like what happened to apartheid South Africa.”

Other commentators say the manner in which Israel has so far engaged with international bodies has been a mistake.

“To date, Israel's responses to the wave of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel perversions of international law that have swept through the UN, ICJ and ICC have been handled by the diplomatic and legal bureaucracy, and they have adopted a naive and passive approach that emphasises the legal merits of Israel's position and appeals to the imagined integrity of the institutions,” Israeli legal scholar Avi Bell told The National.

“Nearly all Israeli political leaders, by contrast, understand that the proposed criminal charges are the product of bias against the Jewish state and have nothing to do with any plausible interpretation of the law and facts.”

International reaction

Israel’s international allies had mixed reactions to the news, which could present them with a major diplomatic dilemma.

If Israeli officials are found guilty of war crimes, allied countries that are signatories to the ICC would be obliged to arrest them if they entered their territory.

US President Joe Biden said on Monday the decision was “outrageous". “Let me be clear: 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,” he added.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said the court’s decision was “absurd” and “unacceptable”.

Germany said that while it is “clear that international humanitarian law with all its obligations applies,” the move creates a “false impression of equivalence” between Hamas and Israeli leaders.

The UK described the ICC’s actions as “not helpful in relation to reaching a pause in the fighting, getting hostages out or getting humanitarian aid in”.

France came out in support of the ICC after its decision, with the Foreign Ministry saying it “supports the [ICC], its independence and the fight against impunity in all situations”.

Updated: May 21, 2024, 5:17 PM