Israel Protests British War-Crimes Arrests

Israeli officials voice concerns about efforts to prosecute senior Israeli army commanders abroad for alleged war crimes against the Palestinians. Israel has appealed to Britain to repeal laws that allow Israelis to be arrested and tried in British courts.

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Israeli leaders are voicing concern about efforts abroad to prosecute senior Israeli army commanders for alleged war crimes against the Palestinians. Israel had appealed to Britain to repeal laws that allow Israelis to be arrested and tried in British courts. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the United Nations last week, Blair invited Sharon to visit England. According to Israeli media reports, Sharon turned him down, saying, `I wouldn't want to get arrested.' Aides to Sharon say he was joking, but they also the prime minister is concerned about efforts by human rights groups to bring Israeli military commanders to trial before foreign courts.

Earlier this month, Brigadier General Doron Almog flew to London to attend a fund-raiser for an organization he founded to benefit autistic children. When the plane landed, an Israeli diplomat went on board and told Almog that British detectives were waiting in the terminal with a warrant for his arrest. The Israeli general chose to remain on the plane until it returned to Israel.

The arrest warrant for Almog was issued after a British law firm presented evidence implicating him in the deaths of 14 Palestinian civilians in an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip more than three years ago. The Israeli attack targeted a leader of the militant group Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for many suicide bombings in Israel.

Before the British warrant was issued, a left-wing Israeli human rights group, Yesh Gvul, appealed to Israel's Supreme Court to prosecute Almog on the same charges. But according to Yesh Gvul activist Ram Rahat, the court has ignored the petition.

Mr. RAM RAHAT (Yesh Gvul): Despite hundreds of completely innocent Palestinians who have been killed, very, very few criminal investigations have been opened. The amount of times that someone has actually been put on trial and convicted is even smaller. I think--I don't even know if we have a handful.

GRADSTEIN: Rahat says that's why Yesh Gvul provided information that helped the British law firm in its attempt to have Almog arrested.

Some Israeli officials lashed out at Yesh Gvul, accusing the group of helping Israel's enemies. Yuval Shteinitz, an influential member of the ruling Likud Party, says Israel's soldiers should be praised for fighting terrorism, not blamed.

Mr. YUVAL SHTEINITZ (Likud Party): People who fought terrorism with all their might to defend their people and their country are now being disturbed in London and elsewhere. And I also think that there is a lot of hypocrisy here.

GRADSTEIN: In addition to Almog, two other Israeli commanders, including a former chief of staff, could face prosecution if they set foot in Britain.

Israelis have faced similar problems in other European countries. For several years, Israel's current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, steered clear of Belgium because of a warrant for his arrest there sparked by his role in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says his government is concerned about the possibility of more indictments in European courts. He says any alleged violations of international law by Israelis should be investigated and prosecuted in Israel, not abroad.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokeperson, Israeli Foreign Ministry): We have in Israel a judiciary that is fiercely independent, a judiciary that is activist--some people would say activist in the extreme--a judiciary that is internationally respected for its independence and for its professionalism.

GRADSTEIN: Regev says Israel is trying to persuade Britain and other European countries to change their laws so that Israeli military officials cannot be prosecuted. Until then, many of them are likely to stay away from London. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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