On December 27th, 2008 the Israeli Defense Forces unleashed a ferocious attack on the Palestinians called Operation Cast Lead. The international condemnation that began once the extent of the offensive’s brutality was revealed seemed to culminate in the Goldstone Report. But in a further development, Tzipi Livni, foreign minister and member of Israel’s war cabinet during the attack, party to the decision to go to war, along with others involved, was indicted by a British court for war crimes. The court was right to pursue justice.
The British government is under pressure to change the law under which Ms Livni can be punished. But why should it? Does it no longer care about international law? Is it something to be applied to enemies, such as Sudan, but not to allies, such as Israel? Or are politicians so afraid of being called “anti-semitic” they will grant immunity to war criminals?
Some people are saying that this is typical of the international community’s antipathy toward Israel, and its relentless attack on the Jewish people. However, Israel is by no means the only target of international criminal law. International law has been moving in the direction of trying political and military leaders, even sitting heads of state, for decades. Leaders from all around the world have appeared in court for jus cogens offenses: Charles Taylor of Liberia, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for crimes against humanity, Augusto Pinochet of Chile for torture; and with any luck, the list will get longer.
Moreover, a decade ago, people complained that it was mostly only leaders from the former Yugoslavia who were on trial, and that African and Israeli leaders who committed crimes under international law were escaping the knife. But customary law has made it possible to try a wider range of criminals. Universal jurisdiction now applies to everyone, regardless of rank, who commits the most egregious crimes. To read the reports of the human rights organisations, including the Goldstone report, on Operation Cast Lead, it is clear “egregious” is an appropriate word to describe this war.
Others warn that arresting Israelis for war crimes or upholding the law according to the findings of the Goldstone Report could derail the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians that the rest of the world seems so keen on pursuing. To this I ask, what peace process? Not only are there no negotiations to speak of at the moment, but it is easy to forget that justice is a prerequisite for peace. Only the threat of punishment can prevent further massacres like Operation Cast Lead. What Israelis and Palestinians need to live in peace is more justice, not less.
Tzipi Livni has said she might travel to the UK to see if the law would really be enforced, and make an example of how flawed the idea of justice is. The British government has assured her they will not arrest her. I say, let me pay for your ticket, Ms Livni, and we shall see what happens.