Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) arrives for a party meeting at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 20, 2024. Israel on May 20 slammed as a "historical disgrace" an application by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for an arrest warrant for Netanyahu. LEHTIKUVA / AFP

International news

The chief prosecutor of the world’s top war crimes court sought arrest warrants Monday for leaders of Israel and Hamas, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over actions taken during their seven-month war.

While Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, do not face imminent arrest, the announcement by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor was a symbolic blow that deepened Israel’s isolation over the war in Gaza.

Countries that are signatories to the International Criminal Court (ICC), including Finland, are obliged under international law to arrest individuals for whom the ICC has issued arrest warrants. This legal obligation is enshrined in the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC and as of 2024 has 123 signatories, not including Israel and the United States.

When individuals such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, or senior Hamas leaders are named in these warrants, member states are required to detain and surrender them to the Court if they enter their territory. This commitment underscores the international community's dedication to upholding justice and accountability, ensuring that alleged perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot evade legal scrutiny and potential prosecution by simply crossing borders.

The court’s prosecutor, Karim Khan, accused Netanyahu, Gallant, and three Hamas leaders — Yehia Sinwar, Mohammed Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh — of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders condemned the move as disgraceful and antisemitic. U.S. President Joe Biden also lambasted the prosecutor and supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas.

Hamas officials have condemned the ICC's move, arguing that their actions on October 7 were justified under international law as a reaction to Israeli violations. They maintain that their operations are a form of legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation and aggression.

Khaled al-Shouli, a legal advocate associated with Hamas, defended the attacks, suggesting they were a response to long-standing Israeli policies and actions. Additionally, French-Algerian lawyer Abdelmajid Mrari, who has previously represented Hamas members, echoed these sentiments, portraying Hamas as a resistance movement fighting against occupation.

A panel of three judges will decide whether to issue the arrest warrants and allow a case to proceed. The judges typically take two months to make such decisions.

Israel is not a member of the court, so even if the arrest warrants are issued, Netanyahu and Gallant do not face any immediate risk of prosecution. However, the threat of arrest could make it difficult for the Israeli leaders to travel abroad.

Renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, was one of the experts reviewing the case and has publicly backed the ICC prosecutor’s actions. Convened at the request of Karim Khan, the panel was tasked with evaluating the evidence for these arrest warrants. The panel includes prominent figures such as Judge Theodor Meron, Lord Justice Fulford, Danny Friedman KC, Baroness Helena Kennedy, and Elizabeth Wilmshurst.

“More than four months ago, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court asked me to assist him with evaluating evidence of suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity in Israel and Gaza, Clooney writes on Clooney Foundation for Justice website. ”I agreed and joined a panel of international legal experts to undertake this task. Together we have engaged in an extensive process of evidence review and legal analysis including at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”

The experts engaged in an exhaustive review process, meticulously examining witness testimonies, expert analyses, official documents, and an array of videos and photographs. Their conclusion was unanimous: the evidence against the leaders of both Israel and Hamas meets the stringent legal standards required to prosecute.

Amal Clooney emphasized the rigorous and unbiased nature of their review. “The law that protects civilians in war was developed more than 100 years ago and it applies in every country in the world regardless of the reasons for a conflict,” Clooney stated. “I do not accept that any conflict should be beyond the reach of the law, nor that any perpetrator should be above the law.”

”Today, my colleagues and I have published an oped and a detailed legal report of the Panel’s findings. My approach is not to provide a running commentary of my work but to let the work speak for itself. I hope that witnesses will cooperate with the ongoing investigation. And I hope that justice will prevail in a region that has already suffered too much,” Amal Clooney mentions.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu and Gallant are accused of using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, and the murder and persecution of Palestinians, which are considered crimes against humanity.

Main Points of the Panel’s Report:

1. The panel was convened at the request of the ICC Prosecutor to assess evidence for arrest warrants related to crimes in Israel and Gaza.

2. The panel consists of experts in public international law, international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law.

3. They reviewed extensive evidence including witness statements, expert reports, official communications, videos, and photographs.

4. The panel unanimously agreed that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

5. Similarly, they found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

6. The report emphasizes that the charges are based on violations of international law governing the conduct of war, not the reasons for the conflict.

7. The panel calls for continued investigations and the cooperation of state authorities, witnesses, and survivors to ensure comprehensive justice.

While the global south has welcomed the ICC anouncment, USA, Isreal and its allies have denounced it. The same nations now denouncing the ICC's decision to seek arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, previously praised the Court when it indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes related to the abduction of Ukrainian children. Notably, U.S. President Joe Biden, who now criticizes the ICC’s actions regarding Israel, had lauded the Court’s move against Putin as "justified" and essential for accountability​.