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Israelis cancel UK visit over risk of war crimes arrest

Gaza policy foes push prosecution

British Attorney General Patricia Scotland said a change was urgently needed for the ‘universal jurisdiction’ law. British Attorney General Patricia Scotland said a change was urgently needed for the ‘universal jurisdiction’ law.
By Mark Lavie
Associated Press / January 6, 2010

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JERUSALEM - An Israeli military delegation has canceled an official visit to Britain, officials said yesterday, the latest in a string of politicians and army officials to put off travel to the United Kingdom because of fears of war crimes prosecution.

Israel complained that the practice, spearheaded by pro-Palestinian activists, is harming relations, and Britain’s visiting attorney general said an urgent solution must be found.

The Israelis called off their trip because their British Army hosts could not guarantee they would not be arrested, the Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Neither the Israeli military nor the British government would comment.

The incident underlined the effectiveness of a pro-Palestinian legal campaign to harass Israeli officials following war crimes allegations after Israel’s devastating invasion of Gaza a year ago to stop rocket attacks.

Israelis brand the tactic “lawfare,’’ which they denounce as warfare through distortion of laws and conventions. It has crimped the travel plans of many officials and put Israel on the defensive in international bodies.

In Britain, pro-Palestinian groups have forced Israelis to cancel trips for fear of arrest, taking advantage of Britain’s “universal jurisdiction’’ law that allows prosecution of war criminals whose crimes have no direct connection with Britain.

Britain is one of the pioneers of the universal jurisdiction concept, but the British government is concerned that its application to Israel is badly straining relations between the countries and has vowed to solve the problem.

Visiting Attorney General Patricia Janet Scotland of Britain heard a stiff protest yesterday from Danny Ayalon, the deputy Israeli foreign minister, who called the situation intolerable.

Later yesterday, in a speech at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, she noted that the British government “is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed to avoid this situation arising again and is determined that Israel’s leaders should always be able to travel freely to the UK.’’

In Britain, pro-Palestinian groups have condemned moves to alter the law.

“We believe no attempt should be made’’ to change the law, said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. “There’s no reason why Israel should be singled out for special treatment. If they’re accused of war crimes, we have a duty - and legislation - to prosecute.’’

Israelis charge that the Palestinian use of the universal jurisdiction law is a distortion of its original intention - to prosecute war criminals whose own justice systems were incapable or unwilling to investigate their deeds. Though it has not satisfied international rights groups, Israel’s military has investigated its own activities in the Gaza war and says it is still looking into a handful of cases.

Israeli analysts charge that other examples of “lawfare’’ are condemnations by human rights groups and the UN of Israeli actions against Palestinian militants, especially last winter’s military operation in Gaza that left about 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many civilians, and caused widespread destruction.

Last month, pro-Palestinian activists persuaded a London judge to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli politician Tzipi Livni, who was foreign minister during the war in Gaza. The warrant was withdrawn after Livni canceled her trip, but the matter strained relations between Britain and Israel.

The threat of arrest has forced several former security officials to call off trips to London, including a former general who had to remain aboard an airplane at Heathrow Airport in 2005 to avoid arrest.