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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israel reacted furiously to a decision by a Spanish judge on Thursday to open a probe of seven former top security officials for alleged war crimes in the 2002 bombing in Gaza that killed top Hamas terrorist Salah Shehadeh and 14 other people.
"Someone who calls the assassination of a terrorist a crime against humanity lives in an upside-down world," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.
The investigation has been ordered against National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was defense minister at the time; Likud Knesset candidate Moshe Ya'alon, who was chief of General Staff; Dan Halutz, then commander of the air force; Doron Almog, who was OC Southern Command; then-National Security Council head Giora Eiland; the defense minister's military secretary, Mike Herzog; and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who was head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
"Shehadeh was responsible for the murder of dozens of Israelis," Dichter told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday night. "We pursued him for a long time. The man was a terrorist responsible for dozens of attacks against Israeli civilians. He knew we were pursuing him and went from multi-story building to multi-story building. On the day of the assassination, he was in the building with his wife, who aided him, and was killed in the strike.
"To my sorrow, innocent people were harmed in the strike, and I do regret that," Dichter said.
However, he described the legal action as "absurd" and said he trusted the Foreign Ministry's ability to solve any such problems overseas.
Dichter is no stranger to such lawsuits. In late 2007, he canceled a trip to England out of concern that he could be arrested on similar charges, and a Palestinian organization filed a civil suit against him in the United States in 2005. That suit was thrown out by the court in 2007, but according to a senior member of Dichter's staff, the decision has recently been appealed.
The Justice Ministry rejected allegations that it had failed to take seriously a request from Spanish authorities to turn over key documents connected to the targeted killing of Shehadeh.
It issued a statement on Thursday night saying that "the Spanish authorities asked to receive materials in the course of January, and because of the large quantity of the material in question, the preparation of the documents has continued until now."
According to Justice Ministry spokesman Moshe Cohen, "In consultation with all of the relevant people in different government ministries, it was decided - in an exceptional decision - to comply with the Spanish judge's request to acquire documents concerning legal proceedings in Israel regarding the Shehadeh affair.
"To our regret, the Spanish authorities did not wait to receive the materials from Israel, and have already published their decision," he wrote. "There is no doubt that the very issuance of this suit constitutes a cynical and political attempt by private anti-Israel interests to take advantage of the Spanish judicial system to butt heads with Israel."
Should the Spanish judge, Fernando Andreu, choose to issue an international arrest warrant for any of the Israelis in question, they could be arrested upon arrival in any European Union member state.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who spoke with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos about the matter on Thursday evening, directed the ministry's legal department to work quickly to annul the proceedings. She said that Israel "viewed gravely" the decision to open the probe. It was completely unacceptable, and Israel would give full legal backing to the seven officials, Livni said.
Andreu said the attack against Shehadeh in a densely populated civilian area might constitute a crime against humanity. Shehadeh was the head of Hamas's military wing, Izzadin Kassam.
The judge is acting under a doctrine that allows prosecution in Spain of such an offense or crimes like terrorism or genocide, even if they are alleged to have been committed in another country.
"The decision of the Spanish court is delusional, ridiculous, and more than that, outrageous," Ben-Eliezer told Channel 2. "They are using the courts of the free world to fight those who fight terror."
"I am not sorry about the decision that I made when I was defense minister to assassinate him. Shehadeh was an arch-murderer. If we hadn't done this, hundreds of others would have died," he said.
Barak issued a statement saying, "All of the senior defense officials, from the past and the present, acted correctly in the name of the State of Israel and out of a commitment to defend Israeli citizens."
He said the Spanish decision was particularly disturbing following recent events in the Gaza Strip, during which Hamas's "true face" had been revealed. The defense minister said he would take all necessary action to defend the officials from the charges and to have those charges annulled.
Diplomatic officials said this case had been pending for a number of years, and it was not clear whether the timing of the probe now was a result of Operation Cast Lead.
Israel is bracing for a wave of court cases following the latest Gaza offensive, and the cabinet on Sunday pledged that the state would give full legal and moral support to soldiers and officers who participated in the military operation against Hamas.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the cabinet meeting that these efforts, which he described as "typical moral acrobatics," were aimed at "trying to turn the attacker into the attacked and vice-versa."
Yaakov Katz and AP contributed to this report.