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Editorial: Are ICC arrest warrants for Israel's leaders something to celebrate?

ARREST warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) raise pressure on Israel’s allies to force a halt to its brutal war on Gaza.

Israel does not recognise the ICC, unlike the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where it has been forced to defend its conduct in the face of detailed submissions from South Africa that it is guilty of genocide. The latter is a UN court which tries states: the ICC a treaty-based court which tries individuals.

The ICC warrants can’t touch Israel’s leaders at home, any more than the earlier warrant issued for Russian leader Vladimir Putin has resulted in his arrest. Nor are they likely to cause Netanyahu any trouble on his periodic trips to browbeat and beg from the US Congress, since Washington doesn’t recognise the ICC either. But they make it harder for Israel’s European sponsors — including the British government — to avoid the questions raised by our close alliance with an apartheid state accused, by an increasing range of bodies and countries worldwide, of war crimes, and will make it more difficult for Netanyahu and Gallant to travel where they please.

The ICC has also issued arrest warrants for three Hamas leaders over the October 7 attack on Israel, which involved the large-scale killing of civilians. Hamas leaders can hardly travel freely anyway however, so these are of limited likely significance. If anything, the political damage done to Netanyahu and Gallant by being bracketed with Hamas is greater than if they had been the only ones accused.

As with the ICJ hearings, arrest warrants for Israel’s top leaders represent progress towards ending a double standard, by which adversaries of the US-led political West — often styled “the international community” in British media — can be held to account for real or supposed crimes, but allies cannot.

This is important to bear in mind when Israel apologists claim the country is being unfairly singled out. 

No anti-imperialist could take seriously the British state standing in judgement over others: it has itself been guilty more than once this century of the “supreme international crime” as defined at Nuremberg — starting a war of aggression — and continues to play a belligerent and disruptive role internationally, from the Caribbean (where it sent a gunboat to intimidate Venezuela at the start of the year) to the Far East (where it has sent warships to tag along with the US in menacing China). 

The point is not that Britain undermines its supposed reputation as a defender of democracy or international law by backing Israel. Few beyond its borders believe in that of the country that connived at the 2019 coup against elected Bolivian president Evo Morales, or helped start the illegal and utterly catastrophic wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. 

The point is that Israel is part of the same, US-led imperialist alliance as Britain, and the ICC’s move reflects growing pressure globally for the members of that alliance to be held to the standards they demand of other countries. The ICJ genocide case is one example of what has been termed a “mutiny” of the global South; the ICC arrest warrants are another.

No such legal actions will bring the Israeli war machine to a halt in Gaza, nor can we expect international courts to effectively uphold a system of sovereign and equal states in the United Nations that has always been a polite fiction.

But we can use every prosecution to raise pressure to stop the arms sales, to demand an end to a British foreign policy that ties us, through the US alliance, to defence of an indefensible world order, and to call out the hypocrisy of our war-addicted leaders — so that one day they too can be held to account for their crimes.

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