Threat of arrest warrants unites a divided Israel against the ICC

Threat of arrest warrants unites a divided Israel against the ICC

TEL AVIV — The prospect of arrest warrants for Israeli leaders over their war in Gaza has united an increasingly divided country in opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds nearly unprecedented low approval ratings domestically, but few Israelis are likely to say his conduct, or that of Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, is on par with Hamas’s intentional targeting of civilians on Oct. 7.

“Israelis understand this is a serious issue, that it is unprecedented,” said Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute who has conducted regular polling of the Israeli public before and after Hamas’s terrorist attack against Israel.

“We feel frustrated, angry, but we also have to be realistic, we have to deal with it.”

It’s unclear whether ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s request to the court to issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Gallant — along with three Hamas leaders — will be fulfilled.

Khan accused the Israeli leaders of using starvation as a weapon of war in his filing, while arguing the Hamas leaders “bear criminal responsibility” for war crimes including the taking of hostages, sexual violence, extermination and torture.

The Israeli government does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction, but the action will likely force Israel’s participation in legal proceedings and could threaten Netanyahu and Gallant’s ability to travel to allied countries and engage with the international community.

Einat Wilf, a former member of Israel’s parliament, said the move itself may not be dangerous for Israel, but that it pointed to how broader opinion has been turned “upside down” over the Israel-Hamas war, which she said is worrying.

“We are at a moment that is very dangerous precisely because there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Israel is facing,” said Wilf, who is critical of Netanyahu for not imposing a full siege of the Gaza Strip.

Yahya Sinwar, who is among the Hamas leaders in Khan’s request, is considered the mastermind of the Oct. 7 attack in which approximately 1,200 people in southern Israel were massacred. Hamas kidnapped more than 250 people on Oct. 7 — with more than 124 hostages still held in Gaza, though how many remain alive is unknown. Hamas also holds, since 2014, two Israelis and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

Netanyahu has fueled global rage with his handling of the response, conducting a war to eliminate Hamas that has now killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, a figure that includes Hamas fighters as well as about 8,000 children and 5,000 women.

But Israelis across the political spectrum chafed at what they saw as an implied parallel between the two sides.

“We think it’s ridiculous they put them on the same moral equivalency,” said one of the family members of a hostage who is still held in Gaza, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the ICC’s case.

“It’s almost unbelievable,” the family member continued. “But the judge will need to make a decision over whether they will issue the arrest warrant. Until then, we will wait and see and comment at that time.”

Khan’s pursuit of arrest warrants could serve to paper over Netanyahu’s problems at home — a deepening rift with President Biden, fractures in the unity wartime Cabinet and growing anger over his failure to secure the release of the hostages.

Wilf said frustration with Netanyahu in Israel should not be read as public disapproval of the war itself. “It’s Netanyahu’s bungle, hugely, but the war, it’s the war of our people,” she said.

Much of Israeli society views as hypocritical calls for Israel to agree to a cease-fire with Hamas that prioritizes the relief of the humanitarian crisis for Palestinians over the imperative to release the hostages, said Rosner.

“Israelis by and large feel that the world puts too much emphasis on humanitarian issues in Gaza and does not have proper consideration for the need for Israel to win the war,” he said.

“Israelis feel that if they fight this war, and abide by the rules that the international community would like them to follow, then the ability to win the war will be greatly diminished. And since Israelis feel that winning this war is an existential need for us, they see the demand for more considerations for humanitarian needs as a demand that is an obstacle for Israel’s ability to win.”

Israel has become increasingly isolated globally as the war rages and Palestinian casualties mount, with President Biden drawing a red line this month over the country’s threatened invasion of Rafah — threatening to withhold offensive weapons if Israel moves in without a plan for the safe evacuation of civilians.

There is also growing pressure on Netanyahu within his own wartime Cabinet, with powerful member Benny Gantz issuing an ultimatum to Netanyahu — with a deadline of three weeks — to change course on the strategy of the war or risk his exit from the unity coalition, further deepening divides in the country.

But Israel’s political leadership has been nearly unanimous in its condemnation of Khan’s pursuit of arrest warrants, despite deep divisions and recent public clashes over Netanyahu’s strategy and handling of the war.

“Drawing parallels between the leaders of a democratic country determined to defend itself from despicable terror to leaders of a bloodthirsty terror organization is a deep distortion of justice and blatant moral bankruptcy,” said Gantz, head of the opposition Israel Resilience Party.

“The prosecutor’s position to apply for arrest warrants is in itself a crime of historic proportion to be remembered for generations.”

And Gallant, who also recently issued a public challenge to Netanyahu demanding a postwar strategy, described as “despicable” the parallel between Israel and Hamas made by the ICC’s Khan.

“Prosecutor Karim Khan’s attempt to deny the State of Israel the right to defend herself and ensure the release of the hostages held in Gaza, must be rejected explicitly,” he said.

Editor’s note: The interviews for this article were arranged by the Jerusalem Press Club, which also paid for the reporter to travel to Israel.

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