Israel facing war crimes charges

Human rights groups collecting evidence; Hizbullah also open to allegations.

katyusha nahariya 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
katyusha nahariya 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel's war with Hizbullah guerrillas opened the door to accusations on both sides of war crimes. But can anyone be prosecuted? Israeli aircraft and artillery killed more than 850 Lebanese during the 34-day conflict, most of them civilians, and left a moonscape of ruin. Hizbullah pummeled northern Israel with thousands of rockets that killed 39 civilians among the total Israeli war dead of 159. Now human rights groups in Lebanon are collecting evidence that could be used in cases filed under a legal principle known as universal jurisdiction, which says that war crimes are so serious they can be prosecuted anywhere, not just where they were committed. The UN has harshly criticized Israel's use of cluster bombs in the last days of the conflict. The world body's humanitarian chief Jan Egeland last month called the cluster bomb attacks "completely immoral." Hizbullah also is open to war crimes allegations for deliberately targeting Israeli civilians with their rocket barrages, but no one is known to be preparing a dossier to prosecute leaders of the Shi'ite group. Amnesty International has also called for a comprehensive, independent and impartial inquiry to be conducted by the UN into violations of international humanitarian law by both sides in the conflict. The inquiry, according to Amnesty, should examine in particular the impact of the conflict on the civilian populations, and should be undertaken with a view to holding individuals responsible for crimes under international law and ensuring that full reparation is provided to the victims. Israelis are also are more likely to be caught in other countries where they could be tried because they travel overseas far more than Hizbullah representatives. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev accused groups of "trying to exploit the legal system in some countries for an anti-Israel agenda." He confirmed that Israel has a team working on how to deal with the possibility of overseas prosecutions. "It is unfortunately an ongoing problem," he said. "We spoke to several governments in Europe. We see this as a cynical exploitation of the legal system and we hear from many governments that they agree with our assessment." Kate Maynard, of the London law firm Hickman and Rose which has in the past represented Palestinians in cases against Israel, said groups already are compiling evidence in Lebanon of alleged Israeli war crimes because it is the only way such offenses will be prosecuted. "There is impunity in Israel," she said. "The only place they will be tried is outside Israel." She declined to give any details of the groups or the cases they were working on and would not say if her firm was involved. "It is not going to be quick," she said. "Any credible legal work is going to have to be put together slowly and carefully." The most likely course of action for groups seeking to have people prosecuted is for them to gather evidence and prepare it in a dossier that could then be translated and tailored for several different countries' legal systems, experts say. That way, if a military officer or government official were found traveling overseas, the groups could rush the dossier to local prosecutors and urge them to file charges. "You have to get somebody while they are traveling or rely on (the) complicated and difficult ... process of extradition," Maynard said. Since 2000, several European countries including Britain and Belgium have given war crimes cases "momentum across the continent," Human Rights Watch said in a recent report on universal jurisdiction. Last year, Doron Almog, a retired Israeli general, refused to get off a plane in London after he was tipped off he was about to be arrested by British authorities over a 2002 air strike that killed a Hamas leader and 14 others, nine of them children. He flew straight home. As well as the hurdle of getting Israeli suspects in custody, Prof. Terry Gill, an international law expert at Utrecht University, said there likely would be a lack of political will among European countries to launch prosecutions as they begin sending troops to bolster the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. "The success of UNIFIL depends on a number of things, including cooperation from the Israeli army," he said.