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Israeli leaders run for cover

Gen. Moshe "Boogie" Yaalon.
by Staff Writers
Tel Aviv, Israel (UPI) Oct 6, 2009
Israel's leaders are circling the wagons against international efforts to arrest them abroad on war crimes charges.

The deputy prime minister, Gen. Moshe "Boogie" Yaalon, a former military chief of staff, this week canceled a fundraising visit to London for fear he might be arrested for the assassination of Hamas military chief Salah Shehahdeh in July 2002.

Shehahdeh was killed when the air force dropped a 2,200-pound bomb on his apartment block in Gaza City, along with 14 other people, including his wife and nine children.

Yaalon, a former commander of the Israeli army's elite Sayaret Matkal special forces unit, was forced to call off an earlier visit to London in September 2005 after Palestinian groups sought warrants for his arrest for the Shehahdeh killings.

A week ago a London court rejected a Palestinian bid to have Defense Minister Ehud Barak, another retired general who is the Jewish state's most decorated war hero, arrested on similar charges, this time linked to the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip in December and January.

On Sunday the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, had to fly secretly to Normandy for a military conference with U.S. and French commanders amid warnings that senior Israeli officers could be arrested in Europe because of their involvement in Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip on Dec. 28.

Israeli concerns that the country's leaders have become targets of a widening campaign to hold them accountable for alleged war crimes against the Palestinians, and other Arabs, over the years are not new.

But they were dramatically heightened by a 574-page U.N. report on the 22-day Israeli invasion of Gaza that alleged Israel committed "actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity" during that offensive in which some 1,200 Palestinians, mainly civilians, perished. Israel fatalities totaled 13.

The closely documented report was issued Sept. 15. The four-member commission headed by widely respected former South African Supreme Court Justice Richard Goldstone, who is Jewish, also accused Hamas of war crimes.

But it came down particularly hard on Israel, denouncing the disproportionate use of force employed during the winter offensive.

Israel refused to cooperate with the commission, appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council based in Geneva.

The scathing report was given weight because Goldberg is one of the world's most respected experts on war crimes and served as chief prosecutor of the U.N. International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv branded the report "a prize for terrorists." Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held emergency meetings to discuss the consequences of the report.

"The goal is to avoid a slippery slope which would lead Israel to The Hague," said a senior official in the premier's office.

According to J.J. Goldberg of The Forward, an influential Jewish weekly published in the United States, "Israel's international isolation and vulnerability is several degrees deeper" following the report's release.

"How serious the damage will be depends in considerable measure on how Israel chooses to respond. Initial signs are not encouraging."

The report urged the Israeli government to investigate its allegations and take the appropriate action.

If Israel failed to do so within three months, the United Nations was urged to refer the case to the 108-state International Criminal Court, which could potentially indict Israeli generals and political leaders.

If that happens, they could find themselves in the same situation as African tyrants currently on trial for war crimes or quarantined like President Omar al-Bashir.

Now, Goldberg noted, "that sort of isolation is a real threat" for Israeli leaders.

The Israelis are currently faced with a new principle of international law -- "universal jurisdiction" -- that permits prosecutions by countries other than those in which the alleged crimes were committed.

No Israeli leader has ever been convicted of such crimes. In 2001 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was tried in absentia in Belgium, though not convicted, for the massacre by Israeli-allied Lebanese Phalangists of as many as 2,000 unarmed Palestinian civilians in Beirut's Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps during Israel's 1982 Lebanon invasion.

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