ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrants for Israel’s Netanyahu and Hamas leaders

Published May 20, 2024
A combination photo of Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (L), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh. — Reuters
A combination photo of Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (L), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh. — Reuters
International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim AA Khan. — International Criminal Court
International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim AA Khan. — International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor said on Monday he had requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his defence chief and three Hamas leaders over alleged war crimes.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said in a statement issued after over seven months of fighting in Gaza that he had “reasonable grounds” to believe that the five men “bear criminal responsibility” for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He said he had applied for an arrest warrant for Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant as well as for Netanyahu. They have overseen Israel’s relentless offensive against Hamas in Gaza that has killed over 35,000 Palestinians, including women and children, since the October 7 raid on Israel.

Aid agencies have warned of widespread hunger and dire shortages of fuel and medical supplies in Gaza.

Some 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 were taken hostage in Hamas’ attack on October 7, according to Israeli tallies.

Karim has also applied for arrest warrants for Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar; Mohammed Al-Masri, the commander-in-chief of the military wing of Hamas who is widely known as Deif; and Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ Political Bureau.

A panel of pre-trial judges will determine whether the evidence supports the issuing of arrest warrants, but the court has no means to enforce such warrants and its investigation into the Gaza conflict has been opposed by the United States and Israel.

Israel and Palestinian leaders have dismissed allegations of committing war crimes, with representatives from both sides criticising Khan’s decision.

“Israel, like all states, has a right to take action to defend its population,” Khan said. “That right, however, does not absolve Israel or any state of its obligation to comply with international humanitarian law.”

He said crimes against humanity allegedly carried out by Israel were part of “a widespread and systematic attack against the Palestinian civilian population, pursuant to state policy.”

“These crimes, in our assessment, continue to this day,” he said.

Evidence the prosecutor’s office collected showed Israel had systematically deprived civilians of “objects indispensable to human survival”, including restricting food, water, medicine and energy, he said.

Netanyahu and Gallant bore responsibility, he said, for Israel wilfully causing great suffering and for killing as a war crime.

The Hamas leaders face allegations of bearing responsibility for crimes committed by Hamas, including extermination and murder, the taking of hostages, torture, rape and other acts of sexual violence.

War crimes allegations

The ICC is the world’s first permanent international war crimes court. Its 124 member states are obligated to immediately arrest the wanted person if they are on a member state’s territory, but the court has no means to enforce arrest warrants.

A court of last resort, the ICC steps in only when a state is unwilling or genuinely unable to do so itself. Israel has said that alleged war crimes in Gaza are being investigated domestically.

Israel and its main ally the United States are not members of the ICC, along with China and Russia.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2023 over alleged war crimes in the Ukraine war.

Member states have in the past failed to hand over suspects who entered their territory, including Sudanese former President Omar Bashir, who was wanted since 2005 for war crimes and genocide.

But if warrants are issued against Israeli leaders, court members, including nearly all European Union countries, could be put in a diplomatically difficult position.

“This is a watershed event in the history of international justice,” said Reed Brody, a veteran war crimes prosecutor. “The ICC has never, in over 21 years of existence, indicted a Western official. Indeed, no international tribunal since Nuremberg [against representatives of Nazi Germany] has done so.”

Israeli ministers and Palestinian representatives both denounced the prosecutor’s moves.

Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said, “Drawing parallels between the leaders of a democratic country determined to defend itself from despicable terror to leaders of a blood-thirsty terror organisation (Hamas) is a deep distortion of justice and blatant moral bankruptcy.”

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the prosecutor’s decision to request warrants for the three Hamas leaders “equates the victim with the executioner”. Hamas demanded the arrest warrant request for its leaders be cancelled.

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