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Israeli-British laws and relations

By Sir Cyril Townsend

It is almost a year since the publication of the UN's Goldstone Report on Israel's war against Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. The Committee which prepared the 525 page Report concluded that Israel attacked civilians, police stations, government ministries, food factories, sewage plants and power plants, using "collective punishment" in the process. Careful planning had gone into the assault which was intended to punish, humiliate, and terrorise the civilian population in the besieged Gaza Strip.

One would have assumed that the international community has already laid charges against all the Israeli leaders responsible for waging that brutal and inhumane war. However, that – as far as I know   has not happened. Although General Gabi Ashkenazi was Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces and was fully responsible for all stages of the campaign, he is still in office; this reveals all that we need to know about Israel's position on the Goldstone Report.

General Ashkenazi is known to be reluctant to speak to the media, but he agreed to an interview with the British Sunday Times. He spoke of the "strange situation" in which Israeli officials find themselves unable to visit the United Kingdom for fear of being arrested on war crimes charges. "I realize that this is not the policy of the Government of the United Kingdom," he said. "However, I can only describe this situation, where the presence of officers who stand in the front line against terrorism is considered unacceptable in the same places that were the target of terrorism, as a very regrettable situation." The General added: "I think that global threats such as terrorism require global solutions, through mutual cooperation in the fields of intelligence, operations and techniques, by all Western countries."

It is clear that Ashkenazi had in mind the cancellation of a visit to Britain by a number of IDF officers, including two generals, because of the possibility of such charges being pressed against them. Such legal measures are, Ashkenazi believes, "part of an organized campaign, planned, and well-funded, to de-legitimize the State of Israel and the IDF."

The former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, also cancelled a visit to the UK when it became clear that a court in Westminster had issued an arrest warrant for her. This prompted the right-wing Daily Telegraph to say that relations with Israel are at risk. The Israeli Foreign Ministry called on the British government to "fulfil all the promises made by it to work to prevent the exploitation of the British legal system against Israel and against its citizens by hostile members."

For a while, it seemed as if the then British Labour government was on the verge of pushing for an amendment to change the existing law of universal jurisdiction, which allows ordinary citizens to apply for arrest warrants against those suspected of committing serious crimes abroad. Baroness Scotland, Attorney General at the time, went to Israel and assured her audience that the British government was looking at ways to ensure that Israeli officials could travel freely to the United Kingdom. Jack Straw, who was the Minister of Justice, warned his colleagues about such a move, causing anger in Israeli circles.

The Coalition Government in Westminster has said that "its commitment to ensuring [that it will not give] immunity to those accused of war crimes will not change"; however, "it nevertheless calls for a change in the mentioned Act" covering universal jurisdiction. If the project is approved by Parliament, which is likely, the new law will contain a clause stipulating that "the approval of the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, an independent body, will be required before the issue of an arrest warrant."

Britain's Justice Department says that the amendment "would be in the interest of Britain's international relations". It is known that the CPS works "under the supervision of" the Attorney General, a political appointee, and any independence depends largely on the Attorney General's willingness and ability to withstand political pressure.

I would like, in the long run, for Israel to pay appropriately for its criminal behaviour. However, I am realistic to know that the Israel lobby in Britain and the US is very influential. Moreover, direct lobbying from Israeli politicians and army officers will continue to claim that it is they who are the victims of terrorism and accuse the West of indifference to their plight.

Source: Times Union newspaper

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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