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Israeli vice PM cancels UK trip over arrest fears

Oct. 5, 2009 10:17 A.M. (Updated: Oct. 6, 2009 1:14 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an/Agencies - Israel's vice premier, Moshe Ya'alon, recently cancelled a scheduled trip to the United Kingdom over fears he would be arrested there, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Monday.

In the past, human rights organizations have sought legal action on behalf of 14 civilians who were killed in a strike Ya'alon ordered while he was the Israeli military's chief of staff from 2002 until 2005, according to the paper.

The vice premier was expected to attend a fundraising dinner for an organization supporting British "lone soldiers," foreign immigrants conscripted in Israel's army while migrating via the country's race-based "Law of Return."

The Haaretz report said Ya'alon cancelled his plans when the Israeli Foreign Ministry's legal team warned him that a British court could order his arrest over the civilian deaths, which came during the assassination of Hamas militant leader Salah Shehade.

In July 2002, Israel's air force dropped a one-ton bomb on the Hamas official's home, killing Shehade, his wife, and all nine of his children. At least 50 other Palestinians in the surrounding area were injured.

Ya'alon blamed his predicament partly on South African justice Richard Goldstone, the paper said.

"This is a campaign whose goal is to delegitimize the state - first via the suits that have already been filed against senior officers over the Salah Shehadeh incident, and then in legal efforts to use the Goldstone report to harm those involved in Operation Cast Lead," Haaretz quoted the vice prime minister as saying, using Israel's name for the winter assault on Gaza.

Ya'alon added that he had been avoiding Britain for years, in light of legal advice, according to the report.

Israel's current defense minister escaped arrest last Wednesday when a London judge ruled he held diplomatic immunity. Ehud Barak was in Britain when a petition was brought forth by lawyers working on behalf of dozens of families who were victims of what were called Israel's "devastating military attacks which breached international law during Operation Cast Lead."

London law firms filed a petition at the city of Westminster's magistrate court to issue a warrant for Barak's arrest under the UK Geneva Conventions Act of 1957, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases. Under the terms of the act, the UK is "under a positive duty" to bring to court those who have allegedly committed war crimes.

Palestinian human rights groups Al-Mezan and Al-Haq expressed regret over the ruling, saying in a statement, "[I]ndividuals who commit or order the perpetration of war crimes must be held accountable."

In 2005, UK authorities failed to arrest Doron Almog, an Israeli army general, when he landed at London’s Heathrow airport, in spite of an outstanding arrest warrant. Almog was allowed to stay on his plane after apparently being informed that he could face arrest, and was allowed to return to Israel without incident.
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