Is Israel exempt from international law?

This week has seen a startling series of events redefine the way the UK acts on international law, and the way British governments understand the power of the courts. Under the principal of Universal Jurisdiction, an arrest warrant was issued by Westminster magistrates court for former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, accused of war crimes during the most recent invasion of Gaza. As soon as this information reached the Israel, its government reacted furiously (which was to be expected). Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, said in a statement:

“The current situation is absurd and unacceptable in equal measure. Israelis cannot continually be held hostage by fringe groups of anti-Israel extremists, preventing politicians, businessmen and officers from visiting the UK.”

While Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu described the situation as an “absurdity”.

What happened next was that the British government leaped into action, apologising to Israel and promising to better control the way international law is applied to Israeli officials in Britain. Gordon Brown and David Miliband both rushed to condemn the warrant, assuring Israel that it’ll never happen again.

So why is it that a senior Israeli politician can’t be arrested in the UK for alleged war crimes? The answer, as usual, is that British government ministers have acted entirely out of personal self interest. The precedent that would be set by arresting Livni would make it far more likely that British officials could be arrested for their own war crimes. And that just wouldn’t do.

The way international law is applied currently suggests that the only people who can ever face it are either (a) a few of the operators in the Yugoslavian war of the 90s and (b) Africans. Israeli and British and other ‘western’ government officers are effectively exempt not because of any weakness in the law, but because every single time an arrest warrant is issued, or an arrest is attempted, the move will be swiftly quashed by politicians. Who aren’t supposed to have that much sway when it comes to the courts.

One of Livni’s statements was particularly telling:

“I have no problem with the world wanting to judge Israel. A problem arises the moment [Israeli Defence Forces] soldiers are compared to terrorists.”

By ‘terrorists’, she’s obviously referring to Hamas (the political organisation of which, the UK does not designate to be a terrorist group). Well I don’t have such a problem with that comparison, Ms. Livni. But it seems that as ever, uniformed soldiers are seen by Britain as being naturally better than rag-tag freedom fighters. Unless they’re our rag-tag freedom fighters, of course.

2 thoughts on “Is Israel exempt from international law?

  1. I wonder, though. There is obviously a de facto state of war between Israel and the remaining shreds of Palestine. But has war actually been declared? If it hasn’t, then what both parties are doing to each other is pure terrorism (funny how being ‘at war’ legitimises things).

    Actually, I guess it must be war. When I lived in the UAE, we were ‘at war’ with Israel, a place you could not find on any map published in the region, a non-existent place that you could be jailed for acknowledging the existence of. A non-existent place that had entire Government departments (the Israeli Boycott Office for one) devoted to an Orwellian denial exercise.

    A visit to Jordan a few years ago completely blew my mind. Standing on the eastern bank of the shrinking Dead Sea – what’s on the other side? The West Bank, part of Palestine. Further south, at Aqaba, there’s a town on the other side of the bay: what is it? Eilat, in Israel. Can I go there? Sure, if you want. Just make sure they stamp your visa on a loose piece of paper, not in your actual passport. Because if you have an Israeli stamp, you’ll never get back into a Gulf Arab country.

    It’s all hypocrisy and bollocks.

    PS: I just found out something VERY interesting. Just checked Google Maps to ensure that Eilat is indeed the resort next-door to Aqaba. (It is). The map gives street names etc for Eilat, but for Aqaba, the streets have no names: map provided by GISrael. Hmm.

  2. Bottom line is that no world leader is going to let anyone in their club get prosecuted. They would know that their head would be next on the block.

    I loved El Pais’s reaction:

    Hypocrites of 2009: The British judges who ordered
    the arrest of Tzipi Livni. The former Israeli
    foreign minister is accused of war
    crimes allegedly committed during her
    country’s invasion of the Gaza Strip this
    year. So how is Livni different, for example
    to Vladimir Putin (see the war in
    Chechnya)? Why didn’t the same magistrates
    order the arrest of Angela Merkel
    after the German air force bombed civilians
    in Afghanistan? Why not order the
    arrest of Bush, Blair, and Obama for the
    thousands of innocent civilians killed in
    Iraq and Afghanistan?

    Ok. Why not?

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