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ICC seeks arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders for war crimes, Netanyahu decries 'outrageous' move

International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan said he had reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli leaders Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders committed war crimes. He also said Israel waged a 'systematic' attack against the Palestinian population.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee The Hague (Netherlands) Published on: May 21, 2024 7:17 IST
Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoav Gallant
Image Source : REUTERS (FILE) ICC has issued arrest warrants against Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (R).

The Hague: In a dramatic development, the International Criminal Court's (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan on Monday said he has sought arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Hamas leaders over alleged war crimes. Khan said there are reasonable grounds to believe that Netanyahu, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh "bear criminal responsibility for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The move comes after more than seven months of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that has killed thousands of people and triggered global tensions due to a severe humanitarian crisis. Overseeing Israel's offensive since the Hamas-led deadly attack on October 7, Khan said he had applied for an arrest warrant for Gallant, Netanyahu and the three Hamas leaders, two of whom are believed to be hiding in Gaza.

A panel of pre-trial judges will determine whether the evidence supports the arrest warrants. However, the court has no means to enforce such warrants, and its investigation into the Gaza war has been opposed by the United States and Israel. The announcement was a symbolic blow to Israel that deepened its isolation over the war in Gaza.

'Systematic' attack against Palestinian population: ICC

Monday's announcement marks the first time the ICC prosecutor sought to intervene in the escalating conflict in the Middle East, heightened by Israel's ongoing operations in the southern city of Rafah, where over a million Palestinians have taken refuge from the war. Khan said, "Israel, like all States, has a right to take action to defend its population. That right, however, does not absolve Israel or any state of its obligation to comply with international humanitarian law."

He also said crimes against humanity allegedly carried out by Israel were part of "a widespread and systematic attack against the Palestinian civilian population pursuant to State policy." His office collected evidence that showed Israel systematically depriving civilians of "objects indispensable to human survival" like food, water, medicine and energy, he said, adding that Netanyahu and Gallant bore responsibility for willfully causing great suffering and committing war crimes.

On the other hand, the Hamas leaders face allegations of bearing responsibility for crimes committed by Hamas including extermination and murder, the taking of hostages, torture, rape and other acts of sexual violence. Khan said Hamas leaders gunned down several people at a dance party and killed entire families, adding that he himself witnessed "devastating scenes of these attacks and the profound impact of the unconscionable crimes".

Israel and Hamas decry 'outrageous' decision

Reacting sharply to the prosecutor's allegations, Netanyahu criticised the comparison between "democratic Israel" and the "mass murderers of Israel", calling it a "complete distortion of reality".  He also vowed to press ahead with Israel’s war against Hamas. 

"The outrageous decision by the ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, to seek arrest warrants against the democratically elected leaders of Israel is a moral outrage of historic proportions. It will cast an everlasting mark of shame on the international court... The prosecutor’s absurd charges against me and Israel’s defense minister are merely an attempt to deny Israel the basic right of self-defence. And I assure you of one thing: This attempt will utterly fail," Netanyahu said.

The Israeli PM accused Khan of "callously pouring gasoline on the fires of antisemitism" and turning the ICC into nothing more than a farce. US President Joe Biden called the legal step "outrageous", while Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it could jeopardise negotiations on a hostage deal and ceasefire.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the prosecutor's decision to request warrants for the three Hamas leaders "equates the victim with the executioner". Hamas demanded the arrest warrant request for its leaders be cancelled.

What happens next?

Netanyahu has come under heavy pressure at home to end the war as thousands of Israelis have joined weekly protests calling on the government to reach a deal for the release of Israeli hostages. Two ministers of his Cabinet, Gallant and Benny Gantz have also threatened to resign if Netanyahu does not disclose a clear postwar vision for Gaza.

However, the Israeli PM received strong support on Monday as all Israeli politicians across the spectrum came out in condemnation of the ICC prosecutor's move, including President, Isaac Herzog, and his two main political rivals, Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid. "Drawing parallels between the leaders of a democratic country determined to defend itself from despicable terror to leaders of a blood-thirsty terror organisation (Hamas) is a deep distortion of justice and blatant moral bankruptcy," Gantz said.

The ICC is the world's first permanent international war crimes court. It 124 member states are obliged to immediately arrest the wanted person if they are on a member state's territory. After Khan's dramatic move, his request will go to a pre-trial chamber composed of three magistrates. There is no specific deadline for judges to decide whether to issue arrest warrants. In previous cases, judges have taken anywhere from just over a month to several months. If the judges agree on "reasonable grounds" as claimed by Khan, they will issue an arrest warrant.

The ICC's founding Rome statute involving arrest warrants against sitting heads of state obliges all 124 ICC signatory states to arrest and hand over any individual subject to an ICC arrest warrant if they set foot on their territory. However, the court has no means to enforce an arrest, as seen in the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Moreover, Israel is not a member of the ICC and Hamas is largely considered a terrorist organisation in the West, and Qatar, where Haniyeh is currently based, is also not a member state. It is unclear how the warrant will impact Netanyahu's public standing, although experts believe it will dent his international reputation. It will put nearly all European Union countries in a diplomatically difficult position.

(with inputs from agencies)

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