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25.10.10

Exclusive eye-witness account: Universal Jurisdiction on trial

Middle East Monitor | By Renee Bowyer | 11 October 2010


When I was being held in Israel in 2007 and undergoing a 12-hour interrogation session I remember my interrogator saying to me as he shrugged his shoulders 'International Law? What is that?' I asked him if he believed he was above International Law and he said 'of course; we are the Law.'

I remember a little later in the session the Israeli interrogator showing me photos on his computer of the room I was sitting in. In one photo the glass door on the bookshelf behind me was broken. In the next a man was tied up on the floor with blood on his face. My interrogator told me 'that's what he looked like when I was finished with him'. I asked him if he was proud of this and was that why he was showing me the photos or was he trying to frighten me? He was very proud he said, as proud as he was of his soldier-son who, he told me, was following in his footsteps. He had once been kick-boxing champion of either Israel or the world; I can't remember which.

It was all about violence. The head of Israeli security at the Ben Gurion airport was telling me over and over again that it all had to do with violence and he loved it. He loved kick-boxing because it was violent; he loved being a soldier because it was about violence; and as he kept telling me no one was going to put the law on him.

I remember feeling sick when I was finally taken to the cell at 2am. Having lived in the West Bank for a year I had witnessed assassinations, invasions and house demolitions. I had worked with prisoner rights organisations and had listened to story after story of the intolerable treatment of Palestinian prisoners and their families by the Israeli justice system. I had almost stopped being shocked by what I witnessed every day and I had learnt to believe through the inspiring optimism of the Palestinian families I had lived with that justice was going to be theirs one day. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why I felt so sick when the head of the mukhabarat (intelligence) told me that he could do anything he wanted because no law was above his law.

Inside Palestine you believe that the West just hasn't seen the reality of life under Israeli Occupation or under Siege; that when they see they will demand Israel be held accountable for its actions and will withdraw their financial and military support. When I heard the interrogator tell me that he was above International Law I was appalled but held to my belief that he was wrong.

I am not so sure now.

In December 2009 an arrest warrant was issued by a British court for former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni over her role in Israel's attacks on Gaza in 2008/2009. The warrant was quickly withdrawn but Livni cancelled her trip to the UK, citing a schedule clash as the reason. This was the not the first time Universal Jurisdiction had played a role in threatening officials of a state that proclaimed itself above International Law: in 2005 a warrant was issued for a former head of the Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip Gen Doron Almog. He received a warning about the warrant before disembarking from his aircraft at Heathrow Airport, so he flew back to Israel. In 2009 the former Israeli military chief Moshe Yaalon cancelled a UK visit because of fears of arrest for alleged war crimes and in October 2009, there was also an attempt to issue an arrest warrant for Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak but the court ruled he had diplomatic immunity. None of the cases came to fruition but the mere suggestion that Israeli officials may be tried for crimes amounting to crimes against humanity remained encouraging.

Among the Palestinian solidarity circles it is well known there will be no justice inside Israel for the crimes committed against the Palestinian people. Even for cases involving international solidarity activists there is no justice. Rachel Corrie was killed when an army bulldozer was driven over her in 2003. Her parents are still trying to file suits against her killer and the Israeli government. Tom Hurndall was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper in Gaza three months after the death of Rachel. His killer was sentenced to eight years for manslaughter and is now, barely six years later, a free man. Will the soldier who shot Tristan Anderson while protesting against the Apartheid Wall in Bi'lin and left him handicapped for life face justice? Will the soldier who shot Emily Henochowicz in the eye and blinded her earlier this year be forced to answer for his actions?

If Israel is incapable of trying its own soldiers on this level then it is clear they will never try their officials. The officials who order the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians, who order the use of phosphorus bombs and give free rein to young soldiers who then shoot children and women at random will never have to stand trial before an Israeli High Court. And if there is no possibility of justice from within Israel then Universal Jurisdiction is the only way Israeli officials may be held accountable for their criminal actions.

But it now seems that Israel is capable of averting justice in this area as well. Diplomatic pressure has seen country after county amend and tighten their Universal Jurisdiction legislation to keep Israeli officials safe from arrest when travelling.

There was an instant reaction and condemnation of the arrest warrant for Livni by the British government. The then foreign Secretary David Miliband instantly apologised to Israel and repeatedly stated how important Israel was to the UK as a friend. He said that the Government would look urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed to avoid the situation arising again.

The Coalition government has followed up on this issue and the Minister for Justice Kenneth Clarke has announced his intention of tabling an amendment of Universal Jurisdiction legislation in the UK by the end of October. In an act which Palestinian support groups see as bowing to Israeli pressure, Kenneth Clarke's amendment will see the end of privately filed suits against state criminals. It is clear that under the proposed changes (where the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions will be needed before an arrest warrant can be issued) arrest warrants such as the one issued against Tzipi Livni will be much harder to obtain. Tzipi Livni will be free to travel as she likes again having proudly defended her actions as a member of the War Cabinet during Operation Cast Lead when over 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza were killed, among them more than 300 children.

If you are working within the Palestinian solidarity movement the proposed amendment to Universal Jurisdiction legislation in the UK is yet another indication of Israel's monopoly over the political decisions of Western countries. The UK will be the latest in a line of EU countries who have been pressured into narrowing the scope of Universal Jurisdiction because of suits filed against Israeli officials. If the legal system fails to remain independent of the political system than clearly yet another potential tool for the Palestinian people in their search for justice has been taken from them.

In recent years the excess of Israel's attacks on Lebanon, the massacres in Gaza, the bombing raids that have destroyed neighbourhoods and murdered families, the targeted attacks that have destroyed schools where families have been herded are horrific examples of Israel's abuse of power and indifference to International Law. If the UK bows to Israeli pressure and amends the only law that could try Israeli officials in charge of these heinous attacks, than what Western country will manage to keep law and politics separate and enforce the universally accepted position that no person who has committed crimes against humanity should remain safe?

When I was being held in Israel in 2007 and the head of the mukhabarat told me proudly that the State of Israel was above International Law it seems that he was not wrong.

The author is an Australian born aid worker who lived in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She is a staff writer for the Middle East Monitor (MEMO)