ICC Prosecutor Requests Warrants for Netanyahu and Hamas Leaders

The chief prosecutor at the world’s top criminal court on Monday announced that he was seeking arrest warrants for the leaders of both Israel and Hamas on charges of crimes against humanity, a strong rebuke that equated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel with his Hamas counterpart, Yahya Sinwar, and compounded the growing international alarm at Israel’s conduct in Gaza.

In a statement, Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor, said that after investigating Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s counterattack on Gaza he had decided to apply for arrest warrants for Mr. Sinwar, Hamas’s leader within Gaza; Muhammad Deif, Hamas’s military leader; and Ismail Haniyeh, the movement’s Qatar-based political leader. Mr. Khan also said he was requesting warrants for Mr. Netanyahu and for Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant.

While Mr. Khan’s request must still be approved by judges from the court, the announcement forms one of the harshest rebukes of Israel’s strategy in its seven-month campaign against Hamas that has killed tens of thousands of Gazan civilians. It also heightens scrutiny of Hamas’s actions at the start of the war in October, when Hamas fighters led a raid that killed more than 1,000 people and abducted hundreds more.

“Today we once again underline that international law and the laws of armed conflict apply to all,” Mr. Khan said in his statement. “No foot soldier, no commander, no civilian leader — no one — can act with impunity.”

For now, the announcement is largely symbolic. Israel is not a member of the court and does not recognize its jurisdiction in Israel or Gaza, meaning that Israeli leaders would face no risk of arrest at home.

Judges can also take months to uphold requests for arrest warrants. But if they do issue warrants, those named could be arrested if they travel to one of the court’s 124 member nations, which include most European countries but not the United States.

Mr. Khan’s decision to simultaneously pursue Israeli and Palestinian leaders was criticized by Israeli government ministers and Hamas alike. Both sides questioned why their allies had been targeted instead of their enemies alone.

“How dare you compare the monsters of Hamas to the soldiers of the Israeli Army, the world’s most moral military?” Mr. Netanyahu asked in a statement on Monday evening.

Similarly, Hamas said in a statement that it “strongly denounces” the attempt to “equate the victim with the executioner by issuing arrest warrants against a number of Palestinian resistance leaders.”

The decision raised difficult questions for Israel’s allies who are members of the court and could be required to arrest Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant if the warrants are issued and the men subsequently travel to their territories. Qatar, which hosts several Hamas leaders including Mr. Haniyeh, is not a member of the court.

President Biden condemned the move, saying in a statement that, “Whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence — none — between Israel and Hamas.”

Mr. Khan’s statement said that he had “reasonable grounds to believe” that Mr. Sinwar, Mr. Deif and Mr. Haniyeh were responsible for “war crimes and crimes against humanity” — including “the killing of hundreds of Israeli civilians in attacks perpetrated by Hamas.”

Mr. Khan said he sought their arrest both for the killing of civilians and the capture of hostages during the Oct. 7 attack, as well as on charges of maltreatment of and sexual violence against hostages during their captivity in Gaza.

The requests for warrants were based on interviews with survivors, review of documentary evidence including video and photographs, and field visits by Mr. Khan and his team. Mr. Khan visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank and a border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, but did not enter Gaza itself. He also went to some of the sites attacked in Israel during the Hamas-led raid, interviewing victims and witnesses.

Regarding Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant, the prosecutor said he believed the Israeli leaders bore criminal responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using starvation as a weapon of war and “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.”

While Mr. Khan said that Israel was allowed to protect its citizens, he said that its forces had failed to uphold international law during its devastating response.

“Notwithstanding any military goals they may have, the means Israel chose to achieve them in Gaza — namely, intentionally causing death, starvation, great suffering, and serious injury to body or health of the civilian population — are criminal,” Mr. Khan wrote.

Mr. Khan also implicitly criticized Israel’s judicial system, saying that the I.C.C. is forced to act only when a country’s prosecutors fail to hold its own citizens to account.

The court defers to “national authorities only when they engage in independent and impartial judicial processes that do not shield suspects and are not a sham,” Mr. Khan said.

But Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, said that Mr. Khan had not given Israel enough time to show that its own prosecutors were investigating the case. Mr. Blinken said that Mr. Khan’s aides had called off a visit to Israel on Monday to address that very question, suggesting that they were not serious about finding out the answer.

Mr. Khan’s office said that it “has not received any information that has demonstrated genuine action at the domestic level to address the crimes alleged or the individuals under investigation.”

Within the Israeli government, which had been split over disagreements about war strategy in recent days, the announcement prompted ministers to set aside their differences and adopt a united front.

Benny Gantz, a minister in Israel’s war cabinet and a critic of Mr. Netanyahu, accused the prosecutor of “moral blindness” in drawing an equivalence between the leaders of Israel and Hamas. Mr. Gantz’s response came less than two days after he threatened to quit Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet for failing to set in motion a plan for the governance of postwar Gaza.

Relatives of Israeli hostages praised the push to hold Hamas’s leaders to account, but criticized the decision to target both Israeli politicians and Hamas at the same time.

The Hostage Families Forum, an alliance representing hostages’ relatives and supporters, said it “applauds the issuance of warrants against senior Hamas officials” but was “not comfortable with the equivalence drawn between Israel’s leadership and the terrorists of Hamas.”

Palestinians in Gaza had the inverse reaction, questioning why Palestinian leaders had been targeted instead of only Israelis.

Jaber Yahia, 50, a teacher in central Gaza, said by telephone that he was “relieved” to hear of the requests for warrants for Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant. “Then I found out there were other warrants against Haniyeh, Sinwar and Deif. Why do they insist on putting the killers and victims in the same category?”

Appearing to anticipate such criticism from both sides, Mr. Khan wrote in his statement of the need to apply the law equally to all sides in a conflict.

“If we do not demonstrate our willingness to apply the law equally, if it is seen as being applied selectively, we will be creating the conditions for its collapse,” Mr. Khan said.

In recent weeks, Israeli and Western officials had predicted privately and publicly that leaders from Israel and Hamas could soon face prosecution.

In late April, Mr. Netanyahu said on social media that the country “will never accept any attempt by the I.C.C. to undermine its inherent right of self-defense.”

The I.C.C. is the world’s only permanent international court with the power to prosecute individuals accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. It is separate from the International Court of Justice, another international tribunal in The Hague, which deals with disputes between states. The I.C.J. is currently assessing a claim, brought by South Africa, that Israel is conducting a genocide in Gaza, an accusation that Israel strongly denies.

Mr. Biden, too, rejects that idea, stating flatly on Monday during a celebration of Jewish Heritage Month in the Rose Garden at the White House that Israel’s military assault in Gaza in the wake of the October attacks led by Hamas “is not genocide.”

“We reject that,” he said, telling an audience of Jewish leaders and activists that Americans “stand with Israel.”

The I.C.C. cannot try defendants in absentia, but its warrants can make international travel difficult. The court has no police force, relying instead on its members to make arrests. An arrested suspect is typically transferred to The Hague to appear before the court.

Aid experts have said the hunger crisis in Gaza is a direct result of the war as well as Israel’s near-complete siege of the territory and its strikes on aid workers.

The Israeli military said it had safely coordinated thousands of aid operations and that it was investigating any “exceptional events that take place during war.”

More generally, Israel has denied placing limits on humanitarian aid entering the territory. It says Israeli officials have done all they can to bring food to the territory and that it is the fault of aid organizations for failing to adequately distribute food after the aid has crossed the border.

Analysts have also cited Israel’s failure to allow an alternative Palestinian leadership to take over in the territory, leading to a power vacuum and the breakdown of law and order, making it even harder to distribute food.

The food situation in Gaza was considered stable before the war began, despite a 16-year blockade on the territory instigated by Israel and Egypt. But food supplies fell sharply in October, when Israel cut off all aid deliveries for the two weeks that followed the Hamas attack. At that time. Mr. Gallant promised a “total siege” on the territory, describing Israel’s attackers as “human animals” and promising “no electricity, no food, no fuel” for Gaza.

Since reopening some aid routes in late October, Israeli officials have still imposed rigorous checks on aid going into Gaza, which is home to around 2.2 million people, and the prospect of famine has been looming for months.

Mr. Khan cited several of these restrictions as justification for issuing arrest warrants for Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant, saying that they were part of “a widespread and systematic attack against the Palestinian civilian population.”

By focusing on decisions by Israeli politicians, Mr. Khan avoided making detailed accusations about Israel’s military leadership and did not discuss the actions of its Air Force or ground forces.

Reporting was contributed by Gabby Sobelman in Rehovot, Israel; Johnatan Reiss in Tel Aviv; Abu Bakr Bashir in London; Marlise Simons in Paris; and Michael D. Shear in Washington.

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