Israel, Hamas reject ICC request for arrest of leaders for war crimes

Protesters hold a banner and signs as they take part in a rally in support of the Palestinian people on the square in front of Rotterdam Central Station, in Rotterdam, May 16, 2024. (AFP)

Israel and Hamas, engaged in heavy fighting in the Gaza Strip, both on Monday angrily rejected moves to arrest their leaders for war crimes committed in an international court.

International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan said he had requested arrest warrants for top Israeli and Hamas leaders over the conflict.

Israel called the request targeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant a “historic shame,” while Palestinian militant group Hamas said it “strongly condemned” the move.

Netanyahu said he rejected “with disgust the Hague prosecutor’s comparison between democratic Israel and the mass murderers of Hamas.”

Khan said in a statement that he was seeking arrest warrants against Israeli leaders for crimes including “voluntary manslaughter,” “extermination and/or murder” and “starvation.”

He said Israel had committed “crimes against humanity” during the war, sparked by the unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7, as part of “a widespread and systematic attack against the Palestinian civilian population.” .

Khan also said Hamas leaders, including Qatar-based Ismail Haniyeh and Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, “bear criminal responsibility” for actions committed during the October 7 attack.

These include “hostage-taking”, “rape and other acts of sexual violence” and “torture”, he explained.

“International law and the law of armed conflict apply to everyone,” Khan said. “No infantryman, no commander, no civilian leader – no one – can act with impunity.”

The arrest warrants, if granted by ICC judges, would mean that any of the ICC’s 124 member states would technically be obligated to arrest Netanyahu and the others if they went there. The court has no mechanism to enforce its warrants.

The United States, Israel’s main ally, has also rejected the ICC application, with US President Joe Biden calling it “scandalous” and saying that “there is no equivalence – none – between Israel and the Hamas.”

Germany agreed, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson saying the mandates gave “a false impression of equivalence.”

Biden also rejected charges brought before a separate court, the United Nations International Court of Justice, in which South Africa claimed that Israel’s war in Gaza was genocide.

“What’s happening is not genocide,” Biden said Monday at an American Jewish Heritage Month event at the White House.

South Africa welcomed the ICC decision, while France said it supported the independence of the court “and the fight against impunity in all situations.”

‘Where will we go?’

The war continues unabated, with Israeli forces fighting Hamas in the town of Rafah, in Gaza’s far south, as well as other hotspots in the center and north.

Israel defied international opposition nearly two weeks ago by sending troops to Rafah, a town populated by civilians and which the army has described as the last bastion of Hamas.

Netanyahu has vowed to continue fighting Hamas in Gaza until the Iran-backed Islamist group is defeated and all remaining hostages are freed.

The United Nations said more than 812,000 Palestinians had fled Rafah, near the Egyptian border.

“The question that haunts us is: where are we going to go?” said Sarhan Abu al-Saeed, 46, a desperate Palestinian resident. “A certain death pursues us on all sides.”

Witnesses told AFP that Israeli naval forces also struck Rafah and medics reported an airstrike on a residential building west of the city.

The army said Israeli troops were “carrying out targeted raids on terrorist infrastructure” in eastern Rafah, where they found “dozens of tunnel shafts” and “eliminated more than 130 terrorists.”

“On the verge of collapse”

The war broke out after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, which left more than 1,170 dead, most of them civilians, according to an AFP report based on official Israeli figures.

Hamas also took around 250 hostages during the attack, 124 of whom remain in Gaza, of whom 37 died according to the army.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 35,562 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory.

The Israeli military said Monday that the bodies of four hostages recovered in Gaza last week had been found in tunnels beneath Jabalia in the north.

Israeli forces are fighting in northern and central areas previously reported largely cleared of militants, with the army saying its troops had killed 200 militants in Jabalia.

Israel has imposed a siege on the long-blockaded Gaza Strip, depriving its 2.4 million residents of normal access to clean water, food, medicine and fuel.

The suffering was only alleviated by sporadic shipments of aid by land, air and sea, but truck arrivals slowed as the Rafah operation progressed.

The European Union has warned that 31 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are no longer functioning and the rest are “on the verge of collapse, with more than 9,000 seriously injured people at risk of death.”

Airstrikes continued across the Gaza Strip, including on Gaza City in the north, the army said.

Gaza Civil Defense said the bodies of eight dead, as well as several injured, were found after an airstrike on the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Netanyahu on Sunday and told him that Israel must link the military operation against Hamas to a “political strategy” for the future of Gaza.

Washington has pushed for a postwar plan for Gaza involving the Palestinians and backed by regional powers, as well as a broader diplomatic deal under which Israel and Saudi Arabia would normalize relations.