Reaction to Israeli strike stirs war crime concerns

Soldiers fear possibility that they could face trial before international court

July 26, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israel's airstrike this week against a leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas - an attack that killed more than dozen civilians in Gaza - has renewed fears among Israeli soldiers that they could face war crimes charges in foreign or international courts.

Foreign Ministry officials and army lawyers have been discussing the issue, and the army is instituting rules to shield soldiers' identity, including a ban on the publication of their last names.

Israeli officials are particularly concerned about the International Criminal Court that came into being this month at The Hague. While Israel contends that it is immune from tribunal jurisdiction, government lawyers say the court could pose a threat.

"It is a very important court," said Alan Baker, legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry. "Arab countries are continuing to say that Israel and its army will be the first nation to be called before this institution. We are watching it very closely."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Noam Katz added that the issue "is a grave concern."

Israel officials apologized again yesterday for the large number of casualties from a 2,000-pound laser-guided bomb that an F-16 jet dropped on a three-story apartment building in a densely populated neighborhood.

The target of the attack, Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, was killed along with his wife, 15-year-old daughter and bodyguard. At least 11 other people were killed, most of them children, and scores injured.

Exactly how many people died remains unclear. A Gaza hospital initially said 15, including Shehadeh. In the past two days, at least two more bodies have been found in the rubble, and the names of the dead released by the hospital have not been reconciled with the bodies, even though most have been buried.

Israeli army commanders say intelligence reports mistakenly indicated that only Shehadeh and his deputy would be in the building, and that they misjudged how much damage the bomb would cause.

Members of the United Nations Security Council harshly criticized Israel yesterday but stopped short of formally condemning the attack, after the United States threatened to veto such a resolution.

Israeli officials declined yesterday to identify the pilot of the F-16, but Israeli newspapers said he was a lieutenant colonel who volunteered for the mission. Military sources told the papers that the pilot did not know civilians were in the building.

Yael Stein, a senior researcher for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, said using a 1-ton bomb to target one person was a use of disproportionate force and that commanders should have known that the attack would probably cause civilian casualties.

"Even if they were targeting a military base, the weapon they used was too big to distinguish between civilians and combatants," Stein said. "It was an indiscriminate and disproportionate attack, where the probability of hitting innocents should have been known."

Baker of the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the strike did not amount to a criminal act under international law. The civilian casualties, he said, occurred "during the framework of an armed conflict during which a strike was carried out against a valid military target - a declared, proud and well-known terrorist. The deaths are regrettable and very tragic, but they cannot be considered willful murders."

It is impossible to know whether the issue will go beyond a lecture from the U.N. Security Council. The International Criminal Court does not yet have offices, judges or prosecutors.

Baker said Israel does not consider itself bound by the court's rulings because Israel did not join as a member, and the Palestinians cannot file a claim because they do not have a state. The Security Council can make a complaint, but that is unlikely because of the United States' veto power.

The United States, like Israel, has refused to accept the court's jurisdiction, and obtained immunity for a year for U.S. troops in U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping missions.

The new international court is not Israel's only concern. Several nations allow prosecutions for war crimes, even if not committed on their soil or linked in any way to their country.

This year, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faced potential criminal charges in Belgium for his actions in Lebanon in 1982, when he was defense minister and members of an allied Christian militia massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps near Beirut. A Belgian appeals court ruled that prosecutors could not proceed with the case.

Carmi Gillon, former chief of Israel's security police, the Shin Bet, faced questioning by Danish police for alleged torture of Palestinian prisoners. But the investigation was stopped because Gillon had been appointed as Israel's ambassador to Denmark in 2001, and therefore had diplomatic immunity.

Baker compared Israel's military actions against the Palestinians to U.S. actions in Afghanistan and NATO's bombing campaign in Kosovo, in which many civilians died.

"We have the same problem," he said.

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