By Ian Cobain and Ian Black, The Guardian – 29 Sept 2009
British lawyers for several Palestinian families are seeking to obtain an international arrest warrant for the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, in a London court over alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip.
Barak, who was in overall charge of Israeli’s offensive in Gaza earlier this year, is due to speak at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in Brighton today.
Barak is due to meet Gordon Brown today and David Miliband, the foreign secretary, tomorrow.
The move relates to alleged war crimes and breaches of the Geneva conventions during the war, which was launched by Israel in response to Palestinian rocket attacks and widely criticised internationally. The death toll is disputed, but the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem found that 1,387 Palestinians died, among them 773 people not taking part in hostilities.
Solicitors are due to ask a district judge at the City of Westminster magistrates court to issue a warrant for Barak’s arrest under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases.
Barak, who is also deputy prime minister of Israel and leader of the country’s Labour party, could argue that his government office guarantees him “state immunity” from prosecution. But lawyers from two London law firms, Irvine Thanvi Natas and Imran Khan & Partners, believe the warrant that the international criminal court issued in May last year for the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, offers a precedent. Bashir is accused of committing war crimes in Darfur.
The issue is both politically explosive and legally sensitive.
The accusations against Barak are based, in part, on a United Nations investigation conducted by the former South African judge Richard Goldstone. It concluded earlier this month that Israel had committed war crimes by deliberately attacking civilians and firing white phosphorous shells.
The 575-page report also found that Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group controlling Gaza, may be guilty of committing war crimes by firing rockets at Israeli civilian targets.
Michel Massih, a barrister, said he believed the British government was obliged “to actively pursue people who are alleged to be involved in war crimes”.
Massih told al-Jazeera TV: “One does not need, at this stage, to provide more than a basic prima face case and the suggestion would be that Barak certainly was in a position where he has to answer some of the allegations made about the commission of crimes by Israeli troops.”
In 2005, human rights groups criticised British authorities for failing to arrest Doron Almog, an Israeli army general for whom an arrest warrant for alleged war crimes had been issued, when his aircraft landed in London. Almog stayed on the plane at Heathrow airport after apparently being informed that he could face arrest and was allowed to return to Israel.
“If the Israeli courts were themselves to investigate, there would be no need to have recourse to international tribunals,” Massih said.
“There are allegations of war crimes, there are families seeking redress and because these families are seeking redress they have asked the advice of lawyers in Palestine who have asked the advice of lawyers in the United Kingdom.”