Earlier this week the news emerged that the former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was forced to cancel a trip to London after a British court issued a warrant for her arrest for alleged war crimes. After initially denying this story and claiming that the cancellation was because of a conflict in Livni's schedule, the Israeli government admitted that the arrest warrant had in fact been issued and played a part in the cancellation of her trip.
The warrant enraged Israeli politicians and supporters in this Britain, who have demanded that the British government makes changes to the law to enable Israeli ministers to make official visits to the UK. However, Britain is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and so is obliged to take measures against any person who has alleged to have committed a "grave breach" of the Conventions, regardless of that person's nationality, status or where this breach was committed. Legislation passed in 1957 makes this explicit and states that the authorities must arrest any person on British territory who has violated the Geneva Conventions, no matter where in the world this violation took place. Britain is thus said to have "universal jurisdiction" as far as the application of the Geneva Conventions is concerned. This is not something unique to the UK law, nor has it been controversial until now; indeed, without such provisions in the legal systems of signatories, the Geneva Conventions themselves would be meaningless.
The UN's Goldstone Report on Israeli's conduct in Gaza last December and January (officially known as the "Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict" and approved by the UN Human Rights Council), states that Israel deliberately targeted civilians during its invasion, a clear and serious breach of the Geneva Conventions. Tzipi Livni, who was the Israeli foreign minister at the time of the invasion, played a central role in the Israeli decision to invade Gaza and in Israel's actual conduct during the conflict, in which at least 1400 Palestinians were killed, the majority civilians and about one-third children. If she actually comes to Britain, as things stand it would be almost impossible to find a reason not to arrest her for her role in causing the deaths of those innocent people.
The arrest warrant for Livni was issued by a judge at Westminster Magistrates Court in the belief that Livni was already in Britain (for a Jewish National Fund function). This is not the first time that British lawyers acting on behalf of Palestinian victims of Israel's occupation have tried to have visiting Israeli officials arrested. As recently as September, an unsuccessful attempt was made to obtain an arrest warrant against Ehud Barak, the current Israeli defence minister, who also held that post at the time of the Gaza conflict. In that case, the court ruled that Barak had immunity from prosecution because he was a serving minister in the Israeli government. However, because of this attempt to arrest Barak, the Israeli deputy prime minister, Moshe Ya'alon, cancelled his visit to the UK. In 2002, Ya'alon was the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, and oversaw the bombing of a block of flats in Gaza which killed Salah Shehadeh, the head of the military wing of Hamas and 14 civilians. The closest an Israeli leader has come to being arrested in Britain was in 2005, when Doron Almog, another former military commander, was forced to remain aboard an El Al aircraft at Heathrow Airport until it took off again. Detectives from the Metropolitan Police were waiting to arrest him on charges of crimes committed in the Gaza Strip after a similar warrant had been issued. It is believed that the Israeli Embassy in London was tipped-off about the proposed arrest and warned Almog not to leave the aircraft. Tzipi Livni is now the leader of the opposition in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and is no longer a minister. She thus enjoys no immunity from prosecution under British law and is now effectively barred from entering Britain.
The Israeli foreign ministry summoned the British ambassador in Tel Aviv and expressed their anger about this latest warrant. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement which said, "We will not accept a situation in which Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni will be summoned to the defendants' chair… we completely reject this absurdity taking place in Britain". The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has distanced itself from the actions of the court, stating, "The UK is determined to do all it can to promote peace in the Middle East and to be a strategic partner of Israel. To do this, Israel's leaders need to be able to come to the UK for talks with the British government. We are looking urgently at the implications of this case." This was not enough for the Israeli ambassador to London, Ron Prosor, who demanded that Britain change its laws to prevent such arrest warrants being issued saying, "The current situation has become intolerable… I am convinced that the British government will understand that it is time to react and not content itself with declarations."
This call by the Israeli government to change the laws of the United Kingdom, which have been on the books for more than half a century and reflect Britain's obligations under the Geneva Conventions, is a tacit admission of guilt by the Israeli government. Although to-date Israeli leaders and officials have, generally speaking, been able to travel the world without fear of prosecution for their crimes against the Palestinian people, this freedom is being curtailed, eroding the culture of impunity that has developed among Israelis and their apologists. We now know that Israeli politicians and military officers are advised frequently against traveling abroad. Even though Israel's pressure on Britain to abandon its commitments under the Geneva Conventions may eventually succeed (and nothing would surprise us with regards to the British government's indulgence of Israel and its abuses of human rights and international law), Israelis responsible for crimes against the Palestinian people must know that the tide is turning, and their time is running out.