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Former Gaza General Eludes UK War Crimes Charge

by Jon Elmer

British agents allowed to slip through their fingers the man who oversaw the destruction of Palestinian homes and ordered a bombing that killed 14 noncombatants in 2003.

Sept. 13, 2005 – The former head of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip evaded arrest by Scotland Yard agents in Britain on a war crimes charge when he refused to disembark a flight from Israel at London’s Heathrow airport on Sunday.

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Agents were waiting with an arrest warrant in hand for retired Major General Doron Almog, who served as head of the IDF Southern Command from December 2000 to July 2003, but Israeli agents had reportedly warned Almog of the impending arrest.

The warrant was issued Saturday at a London courthouse for an alleged breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a statute regarding the treatment of civilians in occupied territory.

Israel signed the Geneva Conventions in December 1949 and ratified them in 1951; however, it has consistently held that the Conventions do not apply to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands which Israel occupied in 1967, because they were captured in a "defensive war."

Though Almog’s alleged crime – the wanton destruction of 59 civilian homes in the Rafah refugee camp in January 2002 – took place in the Gaza Strip, UK law authorizes universal jurisdiction for war crimes under the 1957 Geneva Conventions Act.

The January 2002 demolitions followed the killing of four Israeli soldiers in southern Gaza the previous day; however, the army denies that the demolitions were ordered as revenge or collective punishment, claiming that they had been prepared weeks in advance for security purposes, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Further evidence presented to the London judge against Almog included responsibility for the killing of a pregnant woman, Noha Shukri Al-Makadma, in March 2003, and the dropping of a one-ton bomb in a densely populated Gaza City neighbourhood which killed 15 and wounded 150 Palestinians.

The bomb was used to assassinate Hamas military commander, Salah Shehadeh; he was killed along with his wife and teenage daughter, as well as 12 other Palestinians, eight of them children.

Almog is not the only Israeli implicated in that bombing incident. Yesh Gvul, a broad movement of Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, is involved in another complaint filed in the UK against then-Air Force commander Dan Halutz for his role in the bombing, according to a report by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Halutz has since been promoted to IDF Chief of Staff.

Former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon has also been advised to avoid the UK, as courts will likely issue arrest warrants similar to that of Almog’s, Israeli papers report.

In response to criticism over the Shehadeh bombing, Halutz infamously responded that he "slept well at night" and told his soldiers that they should as well. The bombing, Halutz told Ha’aretz Magazine, passed his "moral test."

Some under Halutz’s command disagreed.

"The Shehadeh incident was a red light for us, a final warning," said Capt. Alon R. "With Shehadeh, I began to re-evaluate my beliefs. We killed fourteen innocent people, nine of them children. After, my commander gave an interview in which he said he sleeps well at night and his men can do the same. Well, I can't. We refused to see it as an innocent mistake."

Yesh Gvul said that they were forced to take the case abroad due to the lack of movement within the Israeli legal system, which – two years after the bombing – has yet to order a criminal investigation into Halutz’s responsibility in the bombing more than two years after Yesh Gvul filed complaint.

"We have lost faith in the [Israeli] Supreme Court, and in its ability to deliberate matters related to the IDF’s activities as an occupying power," Yesh Gvul’s Yishai Menuhin told Ha’aretz newspaper. "We are approaching instances abroad only after we have tried everything possible in Israel."

In Almog’s case, the London judge ruled that a police interrogation was necessary before the Shehadeh bombing and the killing of Al-Makadma, who was nine months pregnant, could be included in the charges, according to a statement by Hickman and Rose, the British law firm that initiated the claim.

Instead, the focus of the Almog warrant is a violation of Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which stipulates that "extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly," is a "grave breach" of international law.

According to Amnesty International, more than 4,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since September 2000, more than half of them in the Gaza Strip.

A statement issued by the law firm Hickman and Rose read in part, "The pursuit of war criminals and the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes is a long-term strategy designed to combat the culture of impunity which is endemic inside the Israeli military, judicial and political system."

Such threats have the Israeli political establishment on alert. Irit Kahn, a former head of the International Affairs Department of Israel’s Justice Ministry, told the Jerusalem Post: "If an IDF officer goes to England today then there is a chance they will get arrested. I would recommend that Israel begin talking to England and that high-ranking soldier’s refrain from traveling to England."

Almog avoided arrest after being warned not to exit the El Al airlines flight at Heathrow. He told Israel’s Army Radio: "We were about to get off the plane, then one of the stewards came up to me and said the pilot asked that I disembark last. After some time, the chief steward said that the Israeli military attaché was on his way and wanted to speak to me. I phoned him and he told me not to get off the plane."

The Israeli Hebrew daily, Maariv, reported that the British authorities tipped off the Israeli ambassador to the UK. Israel’s foreign minister Mark Regev confirmed that his office received at least "partial" information on the impending arrest, according to a Reuters report.

Amnesty International acknowledged that the source of the leak is unclear, but in any case "deplored" the failure of UK officials to board the plane and arrest Almog.

"The refusal to arrest a person suspected of war crimes is a clear violation both of the UK's unconditional obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention and under national law," said Amnesty International, calling for an investigation into British agents’ failure to execute the arrest warrant.

"It is difficult to believe that the police would have refused to arrest a person who had arrived in the UK on board an airliner if that person was wanted for drug-trafficking or security offences, simply because they had not passed through UK border controls, if that meant they would otherwise evade arrest," the human rights group added.

Meanwhile, Almog’s successor as the Israeli army head in Gaza, Major General Dan Harel, has signed a proclamation bringing to a close 38 years of Israeli military rule in the Gaza Strip. The declaration, signed Monday night after the last Israeli troops exited the coastal strip, revoked Israel’s assumption of power attained in June 1967. The decree handed responsibility for Palestinian affairs in Gaza to the Palestinian National Authority; however, the Israeli Foreign Ministry will not declare "the end of the occupation" of Gaza because Israel will remain in control of the territorial waters, airspace and border crossings.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jon Elmer is a contributing journalist.

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