Jerusalem Stung by a damning U.N. report alleging war crimes in Gaza, Israel is taking extraordinary steps to fend off potential international prosecution of its political and military leaders, hiring high-powered attorneys, lobbying Western governments and launching a public relations blitz.
Israel has dismissed the U.N. investigation into its winter offensive in the Gaza strip as biased, but its latest moves show it is clearly concerned.
The U.N. report appears to have energized pro-Palestinian groups that have hoped for years to bring Israelis before courts in countries that recognize the concept of “universal jurisdiction” — trying people for crimes unrelated to their own territory or nationals.
Most recently, British activists attempted this week to have Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrested during a trip to Britain for war crimes connected to his role in the Gaza war. Barak was untouched — but only because the court that considered the request ruled that he enjoyed immunity as a Cabinet minister.
But the incident raised the prospect that Israelis might find it increasingly difficult to travel to European countries that recognize universal jurisdiction.
The U.N. report issued last month by Richard Goldstone, a Jewish judge from South Africa and experienced war crimes prosecutor, accused the Israelis of using excessive force and endangering civilians.
It also accused Gaza’s Hamas rulers of war crimes by firing rockets indiscriminately at civilian areas in Israel.
The U.N. Human Rights Council, which commissioned the report, had been expected to vote to endorse it in Geneva today.
But the Palestinian Authority, under heavy pressure from the United States, has withdrawn its support for a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on alleged war crimes in Gaza, diplomats in Geneva said Thursday.
U.N. and European diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with reporters, said the Palestinian delegation’s surprise turnaround means any resolution on the report would likely be delayed until next March.
Although the Palestinians aren’t voting members of the 47-nation rights council, Arab and Muslim countries who control the body may be reluctant to press ahead with the resolution today without Palestinian support.
A senior U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinian decision came after “intense diplomacy” by Washington to convince the Palestinian leadership that going ahead with the resolution would harm the Middle East peace process.
“The Palestinians recognized that this was not the best time to go forward with this,” the U.S. official said.
Endorsement by the U.N. Human Rights Council could ultimately lead to a war crimes trial before the International Criminal Court, although that seems to be a long shot because the most likely route to the court would be through the U.N. Security Council.