War crimes charges grow, J'lem silent

Critics say Israel can't afford to take it easy; 210 groups, including the PA, have petitioned int'l court.

gaza city air strike iaf smoke 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
gaza city air strike iaf smoke 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
As various individuals and organizations file petitions abroad against Israel for alleged war crimes, including at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, there is growing criticism in Jerusalem that Israel is taking too laid-back an approach to the matter, and not going on the offensive. "[Attorney-General Menahem] Mazuz is involved, and a committee has been set up to deal with any lawsuits filed, but these are all defensive measures," one government source said. "We are not taking the offensive." The best example of this, the official said, was Jerusalem's silence when the Palestinian Authority urged the ICC to investigate Israel's alleged war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Some 210 groups, including the PA, have urged the ICC to deal with the matter and the ICC's prosecutor has said a "preliminary analysis" is underway. Israel could have come out and said this was not the way the country's peace partner should act, but instead remained quiet, the government source said. Another example of the low key approach was Israel's complete silence when an Arab League delegation entered Gaza this week to investigate alleged war crimes and report back to the League's secretary-general, Amr Moussa. One Israeli Foreign Ministry official said that it would have been possible to sharply reply to the PA's actions, but because of Israel's pre-election, and now post-election, transition period, there was "no one to take the initiative." The official further said that neither Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who spent much of his tenure developing a relationship with the PA, nor Foreign Ministry Tzipi Livni, who led negotiations with it, had a political interest in publicly attacking it. The official said that the policy was also dictated by other considerations, foremost that Israel did not want to give these petitions any more momentum, and a widespread feeling that the best way to "ride out" the current storm was to avoid giving the petitions more publicity. "There is a consideration that the more you fight it, the more you raise the issue in the public consciousness, and that it's better to deal with it on a back burner," the official said. The official pointed out that despite all the petitions and reports of imminent lawsuits, nothing concrete had emerged, and that when it seemed that something was about to, the Foreign Ministry responded. For instance, the government responded swiftly and harshly, at least in a declarative manner, to a decision by a Spanish judge in January 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. The investigation has been ordered against National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was defense minister at the time; Likud MK 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). Defense Minister Ehud Barak blasted the Spanish judge's decision, saying, "Someone who calls the assassination of a terrorist a crime against humanity lives in an upside-down world." And Foreign Minister Livni, who immediately spoke with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos about the matter, 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. The cabinet has also addressed the issue, to a certain extent, both on the declarative and operative planes. Last month, Prime Minister Olmert publicly said at a weekly cabinet meeting that Hamas was "using the international legal arena as one of the main arenas in which they are trying to hurt Israel and strike at its soldiers and commanders. With the typical moral acrobatics, these organizations and their supporters are trying to turn the attacker into the attacked and vice-versa." At that meeting, Olmert appointed Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann to chair an interministerial team to coordinate the state's efforts to provide a legal defense for those who took part in the military operation. That committee has met and is mapping out where the potential problems are and how to deal with them. But not everyone is pleased with the speed, or the results. Almog, who was advised by the security establishment not to go to Spain, was quoted this week as saying, "Unfortunately, this matter doesn't appear to be hurting the country too much, and so people are dealing with it with a grin. We need to develop an overall strategy and program to deal with this, otherwise the phenomenon will become more widespread and seriously hurt the country." In 2005 Almog was advised not to disembark from an El Al jet when he landed in London because a warrant for his arrest had been issued for allegedly violating the Geneva Conventions in his capacity as head of the Southern Command.•