On Israel's Election Day, Dutch Court to Hear War Crimes Case Against Benny Gantz

The suit seeks compensation for the deaths six members of Gazan-born Dutch citizen's family in Israel's 2014 war with Gaza

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Benny Gantz during a campaign rally in Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019.
Benny Gantz during a campaign rally in Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019. Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

A Dutch court will consider on Tuesday a request to hear a civil suit seeking damages from former Israeli armed forces chief Benny Gantz, who is standing against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a parliamentary election.

The hearing on admissibility will be held in a Dutch district court as voting gets underway in Israel.

The case has been brought by a Dutch national of Palestinian descent using Dutch "universal jurisdiction" laws.

Ismail Ziada is seeking compensation of 600,000 euros (659,900 dollars) for the death of six family members - his mother, three brothers, sister-in-law and 12-year-old nephew - when the family's home in the al-Bureij refugee camp in Gaza was bombed in 2014.

Lawyers on behalf of Gantz and his co-defendant, former Israeli air force chief Amir Eshel, filed a motion to have the case dismissed, arguing that the Dutch courts do not have jurisdiction.

The defendants also will argue that they have immunity from prosecution because the deaths occurred while they were carrying out official government functions.

"The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is the most moral army in the world and I am proud to have served in it for almost 40 years and to have commanded it," Gantz told Reuters in a written response to a query about the case.

The bombing of the Ziadi residence occurred in 2014, during the third war between Israel and Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers. According to Gaza health officials, 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed in 50 days of fighting. Israel put the number of its dead at 67 soldiers and six civilians.

Rebuffing international censure over the non-combatant toll in Gaza, Israel said it forces exercised restraint while confronting guerrillas who operated in densely populated areas.

Under universal jurisdiction laws, war crimes committed abroad can be prosecuted by courts in the Netherlands if the victims of such crimes are Dutch citizens who are unable to access justice elsewhere.

Ziada's lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld said she would argue Israeli courts were not accessible to Palestinians.

"The Israeli judicial system is closed to Palestinians, especially for Palestinians from the Gaza Strip including my client who has also been deemed an enemy subject," she told Reuters.

The Israeli Embassy in The Hague said it was confident that judges would rule that the case "does not belong in Dutch courts."

"The plaintiff ... is attempting to circumvent fundamental and long-recognized principles of state immunity and is asking a Dutch court to pass judgment on an official action of a sovereign state, as well as on the adequacy of its legal system," it said in a statement.

Codified under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, universal jurisdiction allows domestic courts to prosecute individuals for serious crimes that did not take place on their territory or were committed by their nationals.

However, prior attempts to prosecute Israeli officials under universal jurisdiction have failed.

Ziada told judges that Israel had put in place a "system of occupation, oppression and denial of rights" for Palestinians.

"If immunity is rewarded, I effectively have no recourse to justice at all," he said.

Liesbeth Zegveld, Ziada's lawyer, dismissed defense attorney Dieben's claim of immunity, citing jurisprudence in past Dutch criminal cases that successfully applied universal jurisdiction in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Suriname.

Judges then adjourned for deliberations and said a ruling on would be rendered on January 29, 2020.

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