UK keeps quiet on Israeli officer’s detention

The UK government refused to deny on Wednesday reports that an Israeli army officer had been briefly detained at an airport over Gaza war crimes allegations.

Israeli news website Ynet on Sunday said the unnamed soldier had been “detained upon landing in the UK a few weeks ago.”

The UK interior ministry, the Home Office, refused to confirm or deny the detention had taken place. A spokesperson told The Electronic Intifada: “we don’t comment on individual cases so I can’t comment in any detail on it.”

A Foreign Office spokesperson was emphatic that it was a matter for the Home Office alone.

Media spokespersons for Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton airports around London all said they had not heard about the incident.

The Ynet report claimed that the soldier had been on a list of war crimes suspects prepared by Palestine solidarity groups.

It also said that the soldier had been freed and had received an apology after the Israeli government intervened with UK authorities.

The Foreign Office spokesperson said the “authorities” in this case would have been the Home Office.

Ynet did not name the officer but said he served “on the home front” during Operation Protective Edge, the name Israel gave its summer 2014 assault on Gaza during which it killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 551 children.

An independent inquiry commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council found evidence of massive and systematic war crimes during the attack.

Its report stated that the destruction and killing involved “may have constituted military tactics reflective of a broader policy, approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest levels of the Government of Israel.”

The Jerusalem Post reported essentially the same story as Ynet, while the Jewish Chronicle’s website on Monday posted a shorter version of the Post’s story before deleting it soon after.

Immunity?

Daniel Machover of law firm Hickman and Rose said he was unable to comment on the specifics of such cases.

His firm is involved in attempts to have Israeli war crimes suspects prosecuted when they enter the UK. Machover is also the founder of Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights.

In 2011, the UK government changed the law on universal jurisdiction to make it easier for Israeli politicians and officers to evade arrest while visiting the UK.

However, they must still usually obtain special immunity from the UK government, which means that lower level soldiers visiting the country could potentially face arrest if their names have been revealed in the press.

Machover explained: “There is no general immunity for suspects of war crimes of whatever nationality. Only official visitors here temporarily may in certain circumstances benefit from Special Mission Immunity and a narrow group of senior politicians, for example, serving presidents and prime ministers are immune from the criminal jurisdiction of national courts while in office – however, even such persons are not immune from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.”

In June, former head of the Israeli military Shaul Mofaz found himself unable to obtain special immunity.

But despite calls from human rights groups, he was not arrested, and spoke at a meeting in parliament.

Prior knowledge

The Ynet report is vague. In addition to not naming the soldier, it does not reveal which airport he was detained at or the precise date of the incident.

The responses of UK government press officers were also vague, refusing to confirm or deny the detention had taken place. But they also indicated prior knowledge of the incident.

A clear hint that the UK government is withholding information came when the Home Office spokesperson initially said he was unable to comment “in any detail,” but later restricted himself to saying he was unable to comment at all.

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Perhaps the question can be raised in the House of Commons. Members enjoy greater latitude in revealing details of this sort than do functionaries of government departments. As a matter of fact, in an ironic parallel to the immunity conferred on war criminals visiting the UK, British parliamentarians are endowed with legal immunity in naming and discussing the perpetrators of heinous offences. Surely it's in the public interest to ventilate the issue.

Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London. He is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada. He first visited Palestine in 2004.