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Ian Black, Ian Cobain18 Dec 2009 10:44
A British court issued an arrest warrant this week for Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, over war crimes allegedly committed in Gaza this year, highlighting mounting international efforts to pursue Israeli leaders under “universal jurisdiction”.
The warrant was withdrawn when it was discovered that Livni was not in the United Kingdom.
Livni, a member of the war cabinet during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli name for the Gaza attacks, had been due to address a meeting in London on Sunday but cancelled her attendance in advance. Westminster Magistrate’s Court in central London issued the warrant at the request of lawyers acting for some of the Palestinian victims of the fighting, but it was later dropped.
Israel hit back at Britain, warning that until the matter is resolved senior officials will not visit the UK.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the warrant “absurd”, Ynet website reported.
The British ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips, was summoned to the foreign ministry in Jerusalem where a senior official told him the row meant Britain’s ability to play a role in the Middle East peace process had been damaged.
The warrant marks the first time an Israeli minister or former minister has faced arrest in the UK and is evidence of a growing effort to pursue war crimes allegations under “universal jurisdiction”.
Israel rejects these efforts as politically motivated, saying it acted in self-defence against Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.
Livni, head of the opposition Kadima party, played a key role in decisions made before and during the three-week offensive.
A pro-Palestinian group welcomed news of the aborted arrest move as “long overdue”.
The Foreign Office, clearly deeply embarrassed by the episode, said: “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.”
Livni’s office said she had decided in advance not to come to the UK, but lawyers seemed unaware of that when they approached the court last week. The former minister had been scheduled to speak at a Jewish National Fund conference.
It is the second time in less than three months that lawyers have gone to Westminster Magistrate’s Court asking for a warrant of arrest for an Israeli politician. In September the court was asked to issue one for the arrest of Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases.
Barak, who was attending a meeting at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, escaped arrest after the Foreign Office told the court that he was a serving minister who would be meeting his British counterparts. The court ruled that he enjoyed immunity under the State Immunity Act 1978.
Israeli sources said ministers who wish to visit the UK in a personal capacity have begun asking the Israeli embassy in London to arrange meetings with British officials, as these offer legal protection against arrest.
Livni has no immunity because she is a former minister. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, is in the same position.
Her office described her as “proud of all her decisions regarding Operation Cast Lead”. It added: “The operation achieved its objectives to protect the citizens of Israel and restore Israel’s deterrence capability.”—
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