On September 15, 2005, Doron Almog, an IDF general with an illustrious military
career, landed in London on an El Al flight. He was in London fundraising for
Aleh, a charity which provides residential facilities for disabled children.
Gen. Almog did not expect to have any difficulties passing through airport
control in London. In fact, the British police were waiting for him. A lawyer in
London had asked a local court to issue an arrest warrant for Gen. Almog, and
the policemen were waiting at passport control to take the general into
Gen. Almog had a lucky escape. Someone had warned him before he
landed that the police were waiting for him and he stayed on the plane. El Al
did not permit the policemen to board the plane, and Gen. Almog flew back to
Israel without stepping on British soil. How did Gen.
Almog come so close
to being arrested, and should other Israeli soldiers be worried about this
possibility, too? The law in England has changed since 2005, though, and this
article looks at the position then and now.
Under international law, some
crimes are considered so serious that a person who has committed them may be
arrested and tried in any country, not just the place where the crime was
committed or where the person lives, which is normally the rule. Such crimes
include piracy, torture and war crimes. The principle is called “universal
jurisdiction” because a court in any country will consider itself to have
jurisdiction over the whole world when it comes to these crimes.
to that universal jurisdiction, a dictator from South America accused of
torturing people in his own country can be arrested in Britain on a warrant
issued by a Spanish judge, as happened in 1998 to General Pinochet, the former
president of Chile.
Until 2011, England and Wales had permissive rules
about who could ask the courts for an arrest warrant in relation to a crime
subject to universal jurisdiction.
Any person could put information
before a magistrate that a crime had been committed, even one committed outside
the court’s jurisdiction, and the magistrate could issue an arrest warrant. In
the case of Gen. Almog a pro-Palestinian group was responsible for obtaining the
There were exceptions for foreign politicians in the country on
a “special mission,” but not for ordinary soldiers.
resulted in Israeli politicians including the former opposition leader, Tzipi
Livni, canceling planned trips to the UK for fear of being arrested.
2011 Parliament passed the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act to deal
with this problem. Under the new law the prior permission of the Director of
Public Prosecutions (DPP) is required before a warrant can be issued against
foreigners suspected of war crimes committed outside of the UK. The DPP is a
lawyer employed by the government to decide, according to strict criteria, which
suspected criminals should be prosecuted. In particular, only cases which have a
realistic prospect of conviction and where prosecution is in the public interest
should be pursued.
Even with this new law, Doron Almog cancelled a
planned trip to England in June this year because he was advised by Israeli
government lawyers that the DPP might decide that the he should be
The Israeli government would prefer the decision of whether to
arrest to be made by a politician, who would take into account diplomatic
considerations, not by a civil servant who has no such constraints.
October 2011, when Tzipi Livni visited the UK and an arrest warrant was applied
for under the new law, the DPP stated that it had not concluded whether to
prosecute her or not, because she was in England on a “special mission” with
diplomatic immunity from prosecution. For someone like Gen. Almog without such
protection, even the new law seems not to offer sufficient
Because of the law change there is certainly a smaller risk now
that an Israeli soldier visiting England might be arrested for alleged war
crimes in, for example, Gaza.
Even if someone placed evidence before a
magistrate that the soldier had committed a war crime, the DPP would have to
agree before the soldier could be arrested, let alone put on trial. The DPP
could only agree if there was good evidence that the soldier had committed the
crime, and that prosecution was in the public interest.
meaning of “public interest” has not been tested in relation to Israeli
soldiers’ alleged war crimes, it is likely that causing a diplomatic
embarrassment to a close ally such as Israel would not be in the English
public’s interest in most cases. Accordingly, a soldier who simply served in the
IDF, even in a controversial job like manning a checkpoint in the West Bank, but
did nothing more unusual than that, would have little to fear in visiting
England or Wales.The writer is senior partner at Asserson Law Offices,
an English law firm which operates from offices in London, Jerusalem and Tel