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21/05/24 | 9:33 am | Hamas | ICC | Israel

ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrants for Israel’s Netanyahu and Hamas leaders

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said on Monday he had requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defence chief and three Hamas leaders over alleged war crimes.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said in a statement issued after more than seven months of war in Gaza that he had reasonable grounds to believe the five men “bear criminal responsibility” for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He said he had applied for an arrest warrant for Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant as well as for Netanyahu. They have overseen Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza since the Palestinian militant group’s deadly Oct. 7 raid on Israel.

Khan has also applied for arrest warrants for Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar; Mohammed Al-Masri, the commander-in-chief of the military wing of Hamas who is widely known as Deif; and Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ Political Bureau.

A panel of pre-trial judges will determine whether the evidence supports the arrest warrants. But the court has no means to enforce such warrants, and its investigation into the Gaza war has been opposed by the United States and Israel.

Israel and Palestinian leaders have dismissed allegations of war crimes, and representatives for both sides criticised Khan’s decision.

“I reject with disgust the comparison of the prosecutor in the Hague between democratic Israel and the mass murderers of Hamas,” Netanyahu said, calling the move a “complete distortion of reality.”

U.S. President Joe Biden called the legal step “outrageous”, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it could jeopardize negotiations on a hostage deal and ceasefire.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the prosecutor’s decision to request warrants for the three Hamas leaders “equates the victim with the executioner”. Hamas demanded the arrest warrant request for its leaders be canceled.

NETANYAHU BEARS ‘CRIMINAL RESPONSIBILITY’

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2023 over alleged war crimes in the Ukraine war, but Monday’s step was the first time Khan has sought to intervene in the conflict in the Middle East.

“Israel, like all States, has a right to take action to defend its population,” Khan said. “That right, however, does not absolve Israel or any state of its obligation to comply with international humanitarian law.”

He said crimes against humanity allegedly carried out by Israel were part of “a widespread and systematic attack against the Palestinian civilian population pursuant to State policy.”

“These crimes, in our assessment, continue to this day,” he said.

Evidence his office collected showed Israel had systematically deprived civilians of “objects indispensable to human survival” including food, water, medicine and energy, he said. Netanyahu and Gallant bore responsibility, he said, for Israel wilfully causing great suffering and for killing as a war crime.

The Hamas leaders face allegations of bearing responsibility for crimes committed by Hamas including extermination and murder, the taking of hostages, torture, rape and other acts of sexual violence.

“Drawing parallels between the leaders of a democratic country determined to defend itself from despicable terror to leaders of a blood-thirsty terror organisation (Hamas) is a deep distortion of justice and blatant moral bankruptcy,” Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said.

WATERSHED EVENT

The ICC is the world’s first permanent international war crimes court. It 124 member states are obliged to immediately arrest the wanted person if they are on a member state’s territory.

A court of last resort, the ICC steps in only when a state is unwilling or genuinely unable to do so itself. Israel has said alleged war crimes in Gaza are being investigated domestically.

Israel and its main ally the United States are not members of the ICC, along with China and Russia.

Member states have in the past failed to hand over suspects who entered their territory, including Sudanese former President Omar Bashir, wanted since 2005 for war crimes and genocide.

But if warrants are issued against Israeli leaders, court members including nearly all European Union countries could be put in a diplomatically difficult position.

“This is a watershed event in the history of international justice,” said Reed Brody, a veteran war crimes prosecutor. “The ICC has never, in over 21 years of existence, indicted a western official. Indeed, no international tribunal since Nuremberg (against representatives of Nazi Germany) has done so.”

At least 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war in Gaza, according to the enclave’s health ministry, and aid agencies have also warned of widespread hunger and dire shortages of fuel and medical supplies.

Some 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 taken hostage in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 rampage, according to Israeli tallies.

(Reuters)

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