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Israel, Hamas reject bid before ICC to arrest leaders for war crimes

By AFP - May 21,2024 - Last updated at May 21,2024

Smoke billows after an Israeli strike on Jabalia as seen from Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday, amid the Israeli war on the Palestinian territory (AFP photo)

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories — Israel and Hamas on Monday both angrily rejected moves to arrest their leaders for war crimes made before an international court as heavy fighting raged on in the Gaza Strip.

The International Criminal Court's (ICC's) Prosecutor Karim Khan said he had applied for arrest warrants against top Israeli and Hamas leaders over the bloody conflict.

Israel slammed as a "historical disgrace" the demand targeting prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant, while the Palestinian militant group Hamas said it "strongly condemns" the move.

Khan said in a statement that he was seeking warrants against the Israeli leaders for crimes including "wilful killing", "extermination and/or murder" and "starvation".

In the war started by Hamas's October 7 surprise attack, he said, Israel had committed "crimes against humanity" as part "of a widespread and systematic attack against the Palestinian civilian population".

He also said that the leaders of Hamas, including Qatar-based Ismail Haniyeh and Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, "bear criminal responsibility" for actions committed during the October 7 surprise attack.

"International law and the laws of armed conflict apply to all," he added. "No foot soldier, no commander, no civilian leader — no one — can act with impunity."

If granted by the ICC judges, the warrants would mean that technically any of the 124 ICC member states would be obliged to arrest Netanyahu and the others if they travelled there, but the court has no mechanism to enforce its warrants.

Nearly two weeks ago, Israel defied international opposition and sent troops into Rafah, which is crowded with civilians and which the army has described as the last Hamas stronghold.

Netanyahu has vowed to keep fighting Hamas in Gaza until the Iran-backed Islamist group is defeated and all remaining hostages are released.

As the heavy fighting has rocked areas of Rafah near the Egyptian border since early May, the UN said more than 810,000 Palestinians have fled the city.

One Palestinian resident, Sarhan Abu al-Saeed, 46, spoke of his desperation: “The question that haunts us is: where will we go? Certain death is chasing us from all directions.”

Witnesses told AFP that Israeli naval forces had also struck Rafah, and medics reported an air strike on a residential building in the city’s west.

The army said Israeli troops were “conducting targeted raids on terrorist infrastructure” in eastern Rafah where they had found “dozens of tunnel shafts”.

Gallant said on Monday he had told visiting US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan of “Israel’s duty to expand the ground operation in Rafah, to dismantle Hamas and to return the hostages”.

‘On verge of collapse’

The war broke out after Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Hamas also took about 250 hostages during the attack, of whom 124 remain held in Gaza including 37 the army says are dead.

Israel’s offensive against Hamas has killed at least 35,562 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data provided by the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Israel has imposed a siege on the long-blockaded Gaza Strip, depriving its 2.4 million people of normal access to clean water, food, medicines and fuel.

The suffering has been eased only by sporadic aid shipments by land, air and sea, but truck arrivals have slowed to a trickle amid the Rafah operation.

The European Union warned that 31 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are no longer functioning and that the rest are “on the verge of collapse, with more than 9,000 severely injured people at risk of dying”.

Israeli forces have also been engaged in intense fighting in northern and central areas previously declared largely cleared of militants.

Israeli warplanes carried out overnight strikes on Gaza City’s centre and the southern neighbourhoods, as well as on Al Bureij camp and Deir Al Balah in central Gaza, said AFP correspondent, Palestinian medics and witnesses.

Sullivan met with Netanyahu on Sunday and told him Israel must link the military operation against Hamas with a “political strategy” for Gaza’s future.

Washington has pushed for a post-war plan for Gaza involving Palestinians and supported by regional powers, as well as for a broader diplomatic deal under which Israel and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia would normalise relations.

Israel’s centrist politician Benny Gantz has threatened to quit the governing hard-right coalition if Netanyahu does not approve a post-war “action plan” for Gaza by June 8.

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