Fearing arrest, Ya'alon cancels UK trip

Fearing arrest, Yaalon

Vice Premier and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon declined an invitation last month to speak at a Jewish charity fund-raiser in the UK over fears he may face arrest on charges of war crimes. Ya'alon was invited to speak at the Jewish National Fund dinner in London in November to raise money for Benji's Home, a residential project in Ra'anana for lone soldiers (those without close relatives in Israel) and soldiers from disadvantaged backgrounds, in memory of British-born Maj. Benji Hillman, a company commander from the Golani Brigade's Egoz guerrilla unit who was killed in the Second Lebanon War. However, after the former IDF chief of General Staff consulted the Foreign Ministry's legal team, he was warned that pro-Palestinian activists might petition the British courts to seek his arrest on war crimes charges. Last week, lawyers representing 16 Gazan families failed in an attempt to arrest Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was in the UK to address a Labor Party conference. The Westminster Magistrate's Court rejected the charge concluding that, as defense minister and deputy prime minister of Israel, Barak had immunity from prosecution in the UK and that therefore an arrest warrant could not be issued. Foreign Ministry legal advisers believed that Ya'alon would not be subject to the same diplomatic immunity. Ya'alon said the trip was "canceled to avoid playing into the hands of anti-Israel propaganda." His associates said that after Israel's enemies failed to defeat Israel with conventional warfare and terrorism, they were trying legal battles and "hypocritical laws." Pro-Palestinian activists are eager to exploit a section of British law - the International Criminal Court Act of 2001 and the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 - that allows private individual complaints of war crimes to be lodged against military personnel, even if they are not British citizens and the alleged crimes were committed elsewhere. Legal advisers are said to have been concerned about possible charges connected to the targeted killing of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh in Gaza City July of 2002. Fourteen other people were killed in the operation. Ya'alon was chief of General Staff at the time. "It is an abuse of the legal system that those who lead the fight against terror and who wish to come to the UK to support a nonpolitical charity are prevented from doing so by the threats of petty armchair lawyers," said Andrew Balcombe, chairman of the Zionist Federation of the UK. "It's time this loophole in the law was amended as ministers have promised." In 2005, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Doron Almog, former OC Southern Command, avoided arrest at London's Heathrow Airport. He was warned not to disembark from his El Al flight as British detectives were waiting to arrest him for allegedly ordering the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza in 2002. In 2006, Gaza Division commander Brig.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who was scheduled to study at the Royal College of Defense Studies in London, was warned by an IDF judge that he could be arrested on arrival. Kochavi subsequently canceled his trip to the UK. Former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Avi Dichter also canceled a trip in 2007 out of concern that a warrant might be issued for his arrest. In February, Col. (res.) Geva Rapp returned to Israel in haste, fearing arrest on charges of war crimes during a visit to the UK in which he was to explain Israel's position and refute media representations of Operation Cast Lead. Ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor said last year that the law was detrimental to relations between Israel and the UK and that officials were working to amend it. When President Shimon Peres met with British Foreign Minister David Miliband last November he expressed Israel's displeasure over the law. "The Israeli army is peace-seeking and makes huge efforts not to harm civilians," Peres told Miliband. "Britain and the US use similar tactics [to Israel's] in their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan." JNF officials said they were "very disappointed" that Ya'alon would not be able to come. They said that due to the law, his replacement would not be a general. "It is regrettable that relations between Israel and the United Kingdom are hampered as a result of the British government's failure to resolve an outstanding serious diplomatic issue that prevents senior Israeli statesmen and politicians from conducting a normal diplomatic relationship with the British government," JNF UK chairman Samuel Hayek said. Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.