Hundreds of war crimes lawsuits filed against Israelis

Human rights lawyers around the world use principle of universal jurisdiction to bring cases against ministers and military officers.

A woman demands the arrest of the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, during a demonstration against his visit to the British Labour Party's annual conference in Brighton, England, last month. The foreign office upgraded Mr Barak's visit from private to official to give him diplomatic immunity.
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LONDON // Almost 1,000 lawsuits alleging war crimes by Israeli ministers and military personnel have now been filed around the world, Israel has admitted. And the situation could become immeasurably worse for Israel's politicians and soldiers as efforts continue to have the Goldstone report, which accuses Israel and Hamas of crimes against humanity during last winter's Gaza Strip invasion, raised at the United Nations.

Last week, Moshe Yaalon, one of four deputies to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, cancelled a planned fundraising trip to Britain because he feared arrest on war-crimes warrants issued by human rights and pro-Palestinian groups. The week before, the defence minister, Ehud Barak, only avoided arrest on a visit to the British Labour Party conference in Brighton after a court ruled that he had diplomatic immunity.

Israelis travelling without such diplomatic protection now face the possibility of arrest in many countries across the globe, including Norway, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Holland and Canada. Human rights lawyers are using the principle of universal jurisdiction in international law to file suits worldwide for war crimes, genocide, torture and crimes against humanity. According to Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister and a hardline nationalist, the estimated 964 international lawsuits now outstanding represent "a campaign to delegitimise Israel".

But Sarit Michaeli, a spokesman for B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, describes the problem as one of Israel's own making. "Israel has only itself to blame for possible legal proceedings that might be taken against leading politicians and officers abroad because of its lack of internal investigations into wrongdoing by its security forces," she said. "The first line of defence against external prosecutions is independent, credible internal investigations conducted outside of the army."

And that, according to the Goldstone report, is exactly what has not happened since the atrocities and civilian deaths in Gaza. Although many of the existing warrants have been issued in countries that Israeli officials are scarcely likely to visit in the near future - Iran, for example - the situation has become serious enough for Mr Netanyahu to order his justice, defence and foreign ministers to hatch a plan to confront the problem.

There have even been attempts in the United States to bring lawsuits against senior Israeli officials and the future of such legal action now appears to rest on the outcome of a wholly unrelated case. The US Supreme Court is to review a lower court's ruling that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act does not apply to individuals but only to foreign states and their agencies. This review follows the go-ahead for a case to be brought against Mohamed Ali Samantar, the former prime minister and defence minister of Somalia, who is accused of overseeing a string of killings, tortures and rapes in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Marc Stern, acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, wrote in a memo: "Given the effort to pursue legal action against Israel, its officials and soldiers in foreign courts in the wake of the Goldstone Report, Israel has much riding on the outcome of the case, though saying so means aligning oneself with a rather disreputable Somali official in this case, and many serial human rights violators in others."

In fact, attempts to bring legal action against Israelis in foreign countries has been going on for more than 25 years, with a marked lack of success. The first was launched in 1982 in Belgium against Ariel Sharon, then defence minister, for his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon. A court dismissed the charges, which included crimes against humanity, and Belgium later changed the universal jurisdiction principle - after the United States threatened to move Nato headquarters out of Brussels - and will now pursue cases only where there is a distinct Belgian interest.

Spain's legislature has recently followed suit, limiting international jurisdiction to cases where their own nationals are involved, and the United States and Israel are expected to put pressure on other European countries to do the same. One upshot of the Spanish move has been the shelving this year of a long-running case alleging crimes against humanity by Israelis after the 2002 air raid in Gaza, which killed Salah Shehadeh, a Hamas leader, along with 14 civilians, nine of them children.

Other European countries, notably Britain and the Nordic nations, where human rights lawyers are particularly aggresive, steadfastly refuse to give up the principle of universal jurisdiction. In 2005, Gen Doron Almog, a former head of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, refused to leave an El Al airliner when it landed in London after being tipped off by Israeli diplomats that British police were about to arrest him on war crimes charges.

According to pro-Palestinian sources in London, Mr Barak only avoided arrest on his recent visit to the Labour Party after the UK foreign office upgraded his visit from a private one to an official one to give him diplomatic immunity. The cancellation of this month's visit by Mr Yaalon to Britain was hailed by Palestinian groups as showing that Israeli ministers now have "a real fear" of travelling abroad.

Sarah Colborne, the director of campaigns and operations at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in London, said this was a victory for the determination of campaigners seeking to bring suspected Israeli war criminals to justice. "Israeli war criminals must not be allowed to come into Britain, walk freely and remain unpunished," she said. "We are committed to bringing those responsible for war crimes against Palestinians to justice."

But Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said he does not believe that successful prosecutions will result, however uncomfortable the lawsuits might make prominent Israelis travelling abroad. "There have been at least a dozen such cases around the world involving Israelis. All of the cases were dismissed," he told Jewish Week. "The whole purpose of this is to present Israelis as war criminals. Nobody expects that Israelis will actually be brought to trial, but what they want is to have that label. The Goldstone report is just another aspect of this."