IDF generals should not visit England, Germany, Spain and several other European countries since they are in danger of being arrested and being tried for war crimes, international law experts warned Monday.
On Sunday, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Doron Almog - former OC Southern Command - evaded arrest at Heathrow Airport in London after he was warned not to disembark from an El Al flight because British detectives were waiting to arrest him. The arrest warrant had been issued on Saturday by the Bow Street Magistrate's Court at the request of a pro- Palestinian Muslim group. The warrant, reportedly the first of its kind issued in Britain on war crimes charges, alleged that Almog in 2002 had ordered the demolition of 59 Palestinian homes in Rafiah.
Almog said in a Channel One interview that he and his wife were going to England to participate in a fundraiser for Alei Negev, an organization that builds homes for children with disabilities. Minutes after landing, he recalled Monday, a stewardess conveyed to him a message from the captain asking him to wait on the plane. The military attache at the Israeli embassy arrived after a short time and, following consultations with IDF Judge Advocate General Brig.-Gen. Avi Mandelblit, Almog decided to remain on board and to return to Israel immediately.
'If an IDF officer goes to England today there is a chance they will be arrested,' said Irit Kahn, former head of the Justice Ministry's International Affairs Department. 'It depends on the country and their laws. Britain has a wide universal legal system similar to Spain and Germany. While not all countries are like this, one needs to be careful.'
Kahn, who represented Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his trial in Belgium in 2002, recommended that the Israeli government launch negotiations with England.
'This is a problem that needs to be solved on a diplomatic level,' she said. 'I would recommend that Israel begin talking to England and that high-ranking soldiers refrain from traveling to England.' International law expert Professor James Crawford said Israeli soldiers could only be tried for war crimes on specific events and not just for having served in the IDF.
'The mere fact that they served in Gaza does not make them war criminals,' said Crawford, a Cambridge Law Professor and the Palestinian Authority's counsel in hearings over the West Bank security fence at the International Court of Justice in The Hague last year. 'You would need to show specific evidence of a crime within the jurisdiction of the English courts, such as torture or a war crime.'
The Israeli occupation of Gaza, Crawford said, was not a war crime and service there as the head of the military forces did not, in itself, constitute a crime.
'Israel has the right to defend itself, even in occupied territory,' Crawford explained.
Crawford added that he was sure the British courts 'would be sensitive about the abuses people might try to do with the law. Military personnel can only be charged for what they had done, not what some people might think they represent.'
The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, was trying to establish the facts and determine whether Almog was indeed in danger of being arrested. 'There is a lack of clarity over what happened,' Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Monday.
'Part of our fact finding,' he said, 'is to determine whether there are any other names [on their warrant].'
Regev said the ministry wanted to establish - through talks with the British judiciary and executive branches - what would have happened had Almog disembarked.
'If this is a cynical attempt by anti-Israel groups to use British justice to advance their extreme political agenda, we will condemn this and expect the British government to do so as well,' Regev said.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz faced a similar situation in Britain three year ago, when he quickly left the country to avoid an arrest warrant for war crimes. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also avoided visiting Belgium in 2001 and 2002 for similar reasons.
'After returning to Israel and reading about what they had prepared for me, I know I made the right decision,' Almog said, adding that the State of Israel needs to fight for him and other IDF officers. 'My military service was not for me but for the State of Israel.'
Almog added, 'Look at the paradox. On 9/11, I land in London and they try to arrest me, the same person who fought terror more than anyone. I was the first soldier in Entebbe. During my service there were 400 attempts to infiltrate into Israel from Gaza, but they all failed because I created buffer zones by demolishing the homes [in Rafiah].'