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Israeli Prime Minister fears war crimes arrest in UK



Sharon fears arrest if he visits London

Israeli leader snubs Blair’s invitation after court issues warrant for general

BRITAIN is desperate to avoid a diplomatic row with Israel after Ariel Sharon apparently snubbed an invitation from Tony Blair to visit London, claiming that he feared arrest.

The Israeli Prime Minister is understood to have cited the case of a senior general who narrowly escaped detention at Heathrow on war crimes charges last week. Doran Almog remained on an El Al Boeing 747 rather than risk falling into the hands of Scotland Yard after a human rights group lodged charges that cannot be brought in Israel.

Mr Blair suggested that Mr Sharon could visit Britain when the pair met for talks on the sidelines of the United Nations’ 60th anniversary summit in New York. The Israeli premier shot back that because of his years of army service he could also find himself facing arrest.

“I would really like to visit Britain,” Mr Sharon was said to have told Mr Blair. “The trouble is that I, like Major-General Almog, also served in the (Israeli Defence Force) for many years. I too am a general. I have heard that the prisons in Britain are very tough. I wouldn’t like to find myself in one.”

The growing legal threat to Israeli officers also forced the former Chief of the Army Staff, Moshe Ya’alon, to cancel a fund-raising visit to London because of fears that he might be arrested on war crimes charges relating to attacks on Palestinian civilians and property.

Israeli authorities have also warned the serving chief of staff, Major-General Dan Halutz, against travelling to Britain because of the war crimes complaints filed against him by the left-wing army “refusenik” group, Yesh Gvul.

Silvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said the attempted arrest of Major General Almog and the risk to others as an “outrage”, saying he would press British authorities for a change in the law.

Mr Shalom said: “The fact that Israeli soldiers and high-ranking officials are prevented from entering European countries is an outrage. We take a grave view of this. Don’t forget that Britain has troops in Iraq. What will it do if other countries decide that British soldiers and officers committed war crimes in Iraq? Will it consent to having them arrested in other countries? I think it should change at once.”

Israeli Army radio quoted aides of Mr Sharon yesterday saying that Mr Blair was “clearly embarrassed” by the exchange at the UN meeting and promised to take care of the matter.

Downing Street played down the incidents. It said that Mr Blair had pointed out to Mr Sharon that, just like Israel, Britain had a court system independent of government.

A spokesman refused to comment further, saying that the meeting between the two was private. Scotland Yard had been waiting at Heathrow for Mr Almog with an arrest warrant issued 24 hours earlier at Bow Street Magistrates Court. Judge Timothy Workman had authorised the general’s arrest for questioning about the destruction by troops under his command of 59 Palestinian homes in Gaza in 2002. The message that reached Mr Almog came from Israel’s military attache in London — at that moment hurrying along the M4 towards the airport. Mr Almog said: “The chief steward said the attache was on his way and wanted to speak to me. I phoned him and he told me not to get off the plane.”

The call preserved the general’s liberty and prevented a diplomatic incident. But a political and legal storm has followed. The opposing factions in the Israel-Palestine conflict are both crying foul. One side wants an explanation of how the former general came to be tipped off and why police did not board the aircraft to arrest him.

The other is demanding to know what business it is of the British courts what the Israeli army does in fighting what it sees as its “war on terror”.

Although it is tempting to see the General Pinochet case as the origin of such actions, they are based on the 1957 Act that enshrined the 4th Geneva Convention in English law.

Article 146 obliges Britain to search for persons alleged to have committed war crimes and bring them before our courts “regardless of their nationality”. One explanation for not arresting Mr Almog on the aircraft lies in the quasi-legal doctrine of comity, the concept of maintaining good relations with friendly states.


SOURCE

The Times, "Sharon fears arrest if he visits London", 17 September 2005.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,175-1784018,00.html

"The Insider" mailing list article, 17 September 2005.

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