Arab News
November 8, 2010 - 1:00am

During his recent visit to Israel, British Foreign Secretary William Hague believed the stalled Palestinian-Israeli negotiations would top the agenda. But Tel Aviv was more concerned with what Britain planned to do about the prospect of Israeli officials being arrested in Britain to face war crimes charges brought by pro-Palestinian campaigners. Israeli leaders wanted reassurances the arrests would never happen after they suspended an annual strategic meeting in Britain last month due to fears they could be arrested under the principle of universal jurisdiction which allows courts to prosecute war crimes from elsewhere in the world, including prosecuting visiting foreign politicians, and which Britain applies.

Israelis are worried. Earlier this week, it was reported that Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor canceled a trip to Britain amid concerns that he risked being arrested for crimes relating to the raid on the Gaza-bound aid ship in May in which nine Turkish activists were killed. Tzipi Livni, foreign minister during the murderous 2008 blitzkrieg on Gaza civilians, canceled a visit to Britain after an arrest warrant was issued against her by a British court while Palestinian activists tried unsuccessfully to have Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrested during one visit to Britain.

No cases have gone ahead and none will go ahead should Hague stick to the pledge he made on his trip that Britain “would act fast” to amend a law that puts visiting Israeli officials at risk of arrest for war crimes. The UK Embassy said a draft amendment to the law would be put before Parliament “in the coming weeks.” This is a hugely dangerous development. There can be no hiding place or sanctuary for those accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. States that are party to the Geneva Conventions, some 194 of them, are obliged to seek out and either prosecute or extradite those suspected of having breached the conventions and bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts. The urgency of bringing Israelis accused of committing crimes of war to justice should not be diminished by the Israeli tactics of scoffing at these procedures, attempting to obstruct the work of the courts of other countries and pushing its claim that it had been engaged in a heroic battle against Palestinian “terrorists”. The pursuit of criminals of war, punishing offenders and deterring repetitions of their acts is consistent with the spirit of justice.

Britain and Israel cannot obstruct the course of justice. The only way to stop British courts from issuing arrest warrants for Israelis is to change the existing law, allowing Israelis immunity from trial. But it is doubtful the House of Commons would allow this to happen for such a move would mean violating Britain’s international obligations as signatory of the Geneva Conventions.

The Israeli justice system does not give equal justice to Palestinians. It is designed to be accommodative for Israelis and punitive for Palestinians. Now, if a state doesn’t or is not capable of giving justice to the people it occupies, those people have every right to seek justice against their oppressors. Since Palestinians cannot find justice in Israel, they are seeking redress in some European courts like in Britain that have universal jurisdiction and are therefore entitled to try cases regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator and the venue of the crime.

The British government cannot dictate what cases private individuals bring to court. Neither Hague nor David Cameron should be able to do anything, given the absolute independence of the British justice system.


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