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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Biden blasts ICC’s call to arrest leaders of Israel, Hamas

The U.S. said the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction over the war in Gaza and didn’t follow proper procedure.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Biden administration blasted Monday’s announcement that the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor will seek arrest warrants against the leaders of Hamas and Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan accused Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Hamas leaders Yehia Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza and Israel.

None of the leaders face imminent arrest or prosecution. A three-judge panel will consider the warrant request and decide whether to issue them and let the case proceed in a process that can take two months. The ICC also has no police force and relies on member states to carry out warrants.

The war emerged in response to the Oct. 7, 2023, attacks by Hamas where militants killed roughly 1,200 people in Israel and took at least 240 hostages. Since then, Israel has launched a brutal invasion of Gaza, an operation that so far has killed more than 35,000 people.

Khan seeks to charge Israeli leaders with “causing extermination, causing starvation as a method of war, including the denial of humanitarian relief supplies, deliberately targeting civilians in conflict,” he said. Hamas leaders face charges of extermination, murder, taking hostages and sexual assault for organizing the Oct. 7 attacks.

Netanyahu called the charges a “disgrace” and said they were based in antisemitism, an accusation he has used frequently for criticism of the Israeli government. Hamas also denounced the move, saying the warrants “equate the victim with the executioner.” 

Israel’s actions in Gaza have strained historically rock-solid U.S.-Israel relations, led to increased isolation of Israeli leaders and spurred widespread protests in the United States, particularly on college campuses. The war and the U.S. response to it have become a defining moment of President Joe Biden’s first term in office and is potentially undermining his reelection bid in November.

Despite the strain, Biden called the application for arrest warrants “outrageous.”

“Let me be clear: whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence — none — between Israel and Hamas,” he said in a statement. “We will always stand with Israel against threats to its security.”

State Department officials expanded on Washington’s criticism of the charges, saying the prosecutor did not let the Israeli legal system conduct an investigation first and the international court has no jurisdiction over the war. The United States and Israel are not signatories to the ICC’s establishing statutes, but a panel of ICC judges ruled in 2021 that the court has jurisdiction over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories Israel has occupied since 1967. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in other prosecutions, the court has deferred to national investigations and operated as a court of last resort. However, in this case, it “did not afford the same opportunity to Israel,” with ICC officials reportedly canceling a planned trip to Israel.

“Fundamentally, this decision does nothing to help, and could jeopardize, ongoing efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement that would get hostages out and surge humanitarian assistance in, which are the goals the United States continues to pursue relentlessly,” Blinken said in a statement.

When asked about the substance of the charges, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said the U.S. sees no evidence of Israeli crimes. For Hamas, Miller said the ICC has no jurisdiction over its leaders, but “you can conclude from what happened on Oct. 7 that Hamas intended to kill civilians.”

“Absent the jurisdictional questions, it would absolutely be a war crime and a crime against humanity,” he said. “You cannot say the same about the state of Israel.”

Hamas’ accountability, however, should come on the battlefield or in an Israeli court, Miller said.

Officials faced criticism for assisting with evidence collection and welcoming an ICC warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin for his war in Ukraine but then crying foul over charges against Israel’s leaders.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said Biden should not interfere with any ICC prosecution of Netanyahu or Israeli leaders.

“War crimes are war crimes, regardless of whether they are committed by so-called American allies,” Awad said in a statement. "Benjamin Netanyahu is a racist mass murderer who has no intention of stopping his campaign of starvation and slaughter in Rafah and the rest of Gaza unless President Biden forces him to stop.”

But the White House brushed off comparisons between Putin and Netanyahu, saying the situations are vastly different.

“It is an actual war aim of Mr. Putin to kill Ukrainian people. He’s deliberately targeting civilians,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said. “[Israeli] soldiers are not waking up in the morning putting their boots on the ground with direct orders to kill innocent civilians in Gaza.”

Congress lined up behind Biden’s criticism of the warrant, but Republicans also tied it to the president’s wavering of support for Israel. Biden has publicly criticized the civilian death toll, blocking of humanitarian aid and has withheld limited amounts of arms shipments to Israel, while still allowing billions of dollars in aid to flow.

House Speaker Mike Johnson said the ICC charges were “advanced due to the Biden Administration’s pressure campaign against Israel.” 

“In the absence of leadership from the White House, Congress is reviewing all options, including sanctions, to punish the ICC and ensure its leadership faces consequences if they proceed,” he wrote online. “If the ICC is allowed to threaten Israeli leaders, ours could be next.”

Congressional criticism mostly centered on any implication that Hamas and Israel share a semblance of similar culpability for the bloodshed.

“The ICC announcement today is not only misguided and repugnant, it is also a terrible overreach of the body’s authority,” said Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat. “To make a false equivalence between the actions of a democratically elected government and those of Hamas — a brutal terrorist organization — is absurd.”

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Categories / Government, International, Politics

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