A three-month-old controversy in Israel over a peace group's efforts to collect
evidence of alleged war crimes committed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) against
Palestinians intensified Tuesday when a senior member of the ruling Likud Party
submitted a bill in Israel's parliament that would make it a crime for any Israeli
citizen to provide assistance, documents or information to the new International
Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague.
The bill, which was presented by Zeev Boim, chairman of the governing coalition, attaches a 10-year prison sentence to the proposed crime, and would ban any group found to be engaged in the activities it covers.
The coalition government, which may collapse before the bill can be voted on by all members of Israel's parliament, or Knesset, has not yet decided whether it will support it, although its provisions appear consistent with recent demands by the Minister of Justice, Me'ir Sheetrit, that a new law proscribing such activities be enacted, according to Israeli analysts.
But submission of the bill itself raises the controversy, which has become a major topic of talk shows and newspaper columns in Israel, to a new level.
"This bill betrays the memory of six million Holocaust victims," declared former Knesset member and peace activist Uri Avnery. "After the Holocaust, the Jewish people fought with all its strength for the creation of an International War Crimes Court, and now the Sharon Government tries to destroy it. This is tantamount to an admission that they have something to hide."
Israel is a signatory to the Rome Protocol that establishes the ICC--the world's first permanent international court to try war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide--but has not yet ratified it. The Protocol took effect after its ratification by 60 nations last spring, and the ICC is expected to begin its work early next year.
The United States, which signed it in the last days of Bill Clinton's presidency, renounced its signature last May and has sought a blanket exemption from the ICC's scope. In addition, Washington is now actively seeking bilateral commitments from countries around the world not to turn over U.S. troops or officials to the ICC. Israel was among the first of a dozen nations that have signed such an agreement with Washington which pledged in return not to turn over any Israeli soldiers to the new court.
The proposed law is believed to be directed mainly against Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc, which last summer warned 15 senior IDF officers in writing that certain operations they conducted against Palestinians as reported by the Israeli media could be considered war crimes and that Gush Shalom was gathering information about those incidents.
The reported incidents included summary executions, dropping bombs on residential areas, indiscriminate destruction of houses, and punishing families for the acts of one of their members. They also included incidents--many of which were detailed in a major new report released by the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights in Jerusalem Tuesday--when the IDF prevented medical help from reaching those injured or shot at.
"The primary purpose of the letters was to make clear to the commanders the severity of such actions, in terms of Israeli and international laws, and to persuade them to desist from these actions," according to Gush Shalom whose letters also warned that the Israeli government's failure to prosecute such cases in the future left open the possibility that they might be referred to the ICC.
The letters set off a furious debate, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demanding
that criminal action be pursued against Gush Shalom members engaged in the project.
An investigation by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, however, concluded that
the group's actions did not violate any existing law. Sheetrit then called for
a new law.
Gush Shalom has also been widely denounced as Israel's equivalent of Kapos, the special Jewish police who helped the Nazis keep order in concentration camps, and traitors guilty of "stabbing the army in the back."
The Boim bill was denounced Tuesday by Gush Shalom as "despicable" and dangerous. If passed in its current form, the group said, it could be used to prosecute human rights organizations for collecting evidence of abuses on the pretext that their reports might be taken up by the ICC.
"It would turn Israel into an international outcast - a country which first signed the Rome Treaty and would now forbid its own citizens on pain of dire punishment from helping the same court," said spokesman Adam Keller, who appealed to the Labour Party, which is considering leaving the governing coalition, to oppose the bill.