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Israeli war crime suspects may be able to run but they cannot hide

The resignation of William Schabas from his post as head of the UN commission to investigate possible war crimes during Israel's 2014 onslaught on Gaza was always on the cards. From the time of his appointment in August last year, he has been subjected to a relentless campaign that questioned both his integrity and impartiality. The manner and timing of his resignation, weeks before the commission presents its report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), recalls the case of Judge Richard Goldstone who was forced to disassociate himself from the findings of another UN enquiry into the 2008-09 war on Gaza. Instead of subjecting himself to similar humiliation, Schabas decided to throw in the towel sooner rather than later.

While Israeli officials may count this as a victory, it does not lift the spectre of war crimes charges against them. Nor will it alter Israel's image as an international pariah. Whether Schabas stayed or resigned is, therefore, actually irrelevant. Israel has never, and never will, cooperate with an independent investigation into its wartime conduct. Hence, the claim that the UNHRC is innately biased must be seen for what it is — a rather pathetic attempt to evade accountability.

Lawyers acting on behalf of human rights organisations in Gaza point out that all the evidence presented to the UN suggests that there is a compelling a case for a formal investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The character assassination of Schabas will not change the course of events.

What is at stake is whether or not Israel acted within the confines of the law that governs armed conflict. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's claim that the UNHRC "is the same body that only in 2014 passed more resolutions against Israel than against Iran, Syria and North Korea combined" is immaterial; it's simply an attempt to deflect world attention from the real issue.

Did the UNHRC set out deliberately to malign Israel as Netanyahu claims? On 23 July2014, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reiterated the fact that war crimes and crimes against humanity are two of the most serious types of crimes in existence. She noted that in the case of Israel's war on the Gaza Strip the "credible allegations that they have been committed must be properly investigated."

A newly published survey by Chatham House — the Royal Institute of International Affairs — showed that 35 per cent of Britons said that they "feel especially unfavourable towards" Israel. The study, conducted in 2014, showed that the number of those viewing Israel unfavourably had actually increased by 18 points since 2012, presumably because of its military campaign in Gaza which led to thousands of casualties among Palestinian civilians.

Significantly, the categories of international crimes referred to by Pillay originated in the Nuremberg Tribunal of 1945-46. Though intended to deal with those responsible for the persecution of Jews in Europe, their writ was never confined to the Nazi leadership. Robert H Jackson, the former US Supreme Court Justice and prosecutor at Nuremberg, wanted to make it clear, "That if this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment."

Given the circumstances which led to the tribunal it seems utterly mind-boggling that Israel should today seek to deny others the benefit and protection of the laws used at Nuremburg. As such, none of these laws will be worth the paper they are written on as long as Israeli officials continue to enjoy apparent impunity and evade accountability for their actions. The consequences of this selective approach to justice and the rule of law are already evident across the Middle East and beyond.

Moreover, not even the countries that support Israel have been spared the consequences of its disregard for the rule of law. Consider, for example, the 2010 assassination of a Hamas official, Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, in a Dubai hotel. Several of the suspects involved used false passports of several European countries to carry out the operation. Apart from the expulsion of junior diplomats from Britain, Australia and Ireland, not one of the 29 Israeli suspects have been brought before a court of law.

More than anyone, Israelis who have hunted down Nazi war criminals for decades are well positioned to know that the pursuit and prosecution of those believed to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity is relentless and not bound by time. Their perceived success in bringing down William Schabas will have absolutely no bearing on the Palestinian quest for justice. Israeli war crime suspects may be able to run but they cannot hide; they may continue to avoid arraignment at The Hague but they know for sure that they have already lost in the court of world opinion. In the grand scheme of things, it is perhaps this which matters most, for Israel must remain isolated and a pariah in the community of nations until justice is seen to be done.

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