LONDON - The Israeli government fears senior state officials and military officers are still at risk of being arrested in Britain for alleged war crimes, despite a legal amendment aimed at precluding such arrests. Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog had recently canceled an appearance at a fundraising dinner in London scheduled for next month at the advice of Jerusalem.
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Almog, who was GOC Southern Command in 2000-2003, was almost arrested seven years ago at Heathrow Airport, after a local court issued a warrant for his arrest based on claims made by pro-Palestinian activists.
Almog is a patron of Aleh, a charity NGO that supports severely disabled young Israelis. In September 2005, as he was landing in Britain for fundraising purposes, the Israeli ambassador in London informed him about the arrest warrant for alleged war crimes committed under his command in the Gaza Strip. Almog remained on the plane and flew back to Israel.
After this incident, Jerusalem began pressuring London to amend its universal jurisdiction law, which allows private citizens to obtain arrest warrants for war crimes against foreigners visiting Britain.
Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Prime Minister’s Military Secretary, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, are among the senior Israeli officials who have refrained from visiting Britain because of this law.
In September 2011 the law was amended to require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions in case a warrant was issued. Britain's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, contacted Almog and Livni personally after the law was amended to tell them they could now visit Britain without risking arrest.
However, some legal experts dispute this assertion and apparently even the British government was not convinced; when Foreign Secretary William Hague invited Livni to London after the law was amended, the visit was still defined as official, in order to guarantee her protection under diplomatic immunity.
Almog is a prominent spokesperson for Aleh: His son Eran, who died in 2007 at the age of 23, was severely autistic. The Aleh Negev rehabilitative village was named after him.
After the law was changed, Almog agreed to be the guest of honor at a fundraising dinner for the organization in London on June 28, but eventually decided to cancel his participation on the advice of the Israeli government; as a result, the event had been postponed.
"It was Doron's decision to cancel," said a senior Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity, "but we told him we couldn't fully guarantee an arrest warrant would not be issued again. It's true that the new British law is better than the original one, which allowed any judge to issue a warrant, but the government promised it would be changed so that only the Attorney General, who is a political figure we can trust, would authorize universal jurisdiction arrests.
“Instead they decided that the Director of Public Prosecutions, who is a civil servant, may decide that he is going to authorize arrest warrants. We are still waiting for assurances on this from the British government."
Since the law was changed, some Israel Defense Forces officers have visited Britain for work purposes, but no public visits or lectures have taken place.
Doron Almog confirmed the cancellation, saying, "The change to the law is cosmetic; were I to arrive tomorrow in London, the arrest warrant could still be used against me. I don't know what the British prosecutor is going to decide," he said.
Gail Seal, the president of Friends of Aleh in the U.K., said: "We are very disappointed for Aleh, that Doron Almog, who has done so much for these children, cannot come to the U.K.. We hope that it will be possible to hold the event in November."
The Israeli embassy in London said: "In cases such as these, an inter-ministerial committee advises former senior officials regarding the legal possibilities. Almog consulted the committee and we support his decision."