ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrants for leaders from Hamas and Israel

The top prosecutor at the International Criminal Court today announced a request for arrest warrants for top leaders from both Hamas and the Israeli government. Karim Khan said that he has reason to believe that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with the Israeli defense minister, and three top leaders from Hamas all “bear criminal responsibility” for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

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On Monday, the International Criminal Court requested arrest warrants for the top leadership of Hamas, along with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister. 

In a video statement, ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said that the law must be applied equally. 

“Now, more than ever, we must collectively demonstrate that international humanitarian law, the foundational baseline for human conduct during conflict, applies to all individuals and applies equally across the situations addressed by my office and by the court,” Khan said. 

Khan opened his statement by talking about Hamas and named three of the Palestinian militant group’s senior leaders, Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Dief, and Ismail Haniya. 

“My office submits that there are reasonable grounds to believe that these three Hamas leaders are criminally responsible for the killing of Israeli civilians in attacks perpetrated by Hamas and other armed groups on Oct. 7, 2023,” he said. 

He went on to say the three leaders “bear criminal responsibility” for international crimes including murder, hostage-taking, torture, rape and other acts of sexual violence. Khan thanked survivors of the Oct. 7 attack and family members of those killed who shared their accounts with his office. He also called for the immediate release of all hostages still being held in Gaza. 

Then, Khan turned his attention toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. He said their alleged crimes include “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, willfully causing great suffering, serious injury to body or health or cruel treatment, willful killing or murder, and intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.” 

Khan said the famine taking place in some parts of Gaza is the result of an “entirely manmade disaster” and named Netanyahu and Gallant as the two most responsible. 

Condemnation of Khan’s announcement on Monday came quickly from Hamas, Israel and Washington. 

On Monday, US President Joe Biden denounced the decision as “outrageous.” He said, “There is no equivalence … between Israel and Hamas.” 

Hamas issued a statement calling on the ICC to cancel the decision.

Netanyahu categorically rejected the ICC prosecutor’s decision, calling it “a complete distortion of reality.” The Israeli prime minister repeated his vow to win the war against Hamas. 

Khan’s request would still have to be approved by a panel of judges, and the ICC has no way of enforcing arrest warrants. 

David Makovsky, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said most Israelis see Khan’s announcement as outrageous. 

“Here’s a country that is a Western democracy with a fiercely independent judiciary that is somehow being equated to Hamas. You could imagine that people are stunned that such a prosecutor could say what he said,” said Makovsky, who is visiting Israel this week. 

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the ICC’s request for arrest warrants is a good first step but that Khan also left out two key allegations against Israel. “One is genocide,” Buttu said. And torture of Palestinian detainees is another omission, she added. 

At the International Court of Justice, South Africa is currently bringing charges of genocide against Israel. Buttu said, “There’s plenty of evidence to establish this, and [Khan] has ignored it.”  

Israeli lawyers presented their case at the ICJ on May 10 and called the allegations of genocide “grossly distorted.” 

Regarding the Palestinian detainees, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in March reported that 27 Palestinians had died in Israeli custody since Oct. 7, 2023.  

“Israelis are not allowing people to monitor what is happening and there are lots of accounts of the torture that’s being meted out. So, the fact that he omitted both of those, both the genocide and the torture, speaks volumes,” Buttu said. 

Israeli officials say they detain Palestinians suspected of militant activities and that they uphold international law when doing so. 

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin last year. If the ICC does end up issuing warrants for Israeli officials, it would be the first time the court has done so for leaders of a democratic country.

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