By: Barak Ravid
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter canceled a trip to Britain over concerns he would be arrested due to his involvement in the decision to assassinate the head of Hamas’ military wing in July 2002.
Fifteen people were killed in the bombing of Salah Shehade’s house in Gaza, among them his wife and three children, when Dichter was head of the Shin Bet security service. He is the first minister to have to deal with a possible arrest.
Dichter was invited to take part in a conference by a British research institute on “the day after” Annapolis. He was supposed to give an address on the diplomatic process.
Dichter contacted the Foreign Ministry and sought an opinion on the matter, among other reasons because of previous cases in which complaints were filed in Britain and arrest warrants were issued on suspicion of war crimes by senior officers who served during the second intifada.
The Foreign Ministry wrote Dichter that it did not recommend he visit Britain because of a high probability that an extreme leftist organization there would file a complaint, which might lead to an arrest warrant. The ministry also wrote that because Dichter was not an official guest of the British government, he did not have immunity from arrest.
Dichter’s bureau said in response that the minister does not intend to go to Britain on any type of official or unofficial visit until the matter of the arrest warrant is resolved.
Dichter was already charged in a civil suit in the United States in 2005 for his part in the decision to assassinate Shehade. But in this U.S., this is not a cause for arrest.
British law, however, states that a private individual can file a complaint against another person for offenses such as war crimes. According to the law, such a complaint might lead to the court issuing an arrest warrant, or a summons to criminal investigation or clarification of the complaint by the police, or even the opening of criminal proceedings.
Dichter is the first minister to face this problem, which has mainly affected senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces. Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, formerly chief of staff, encountered a similar problem when he traveled to Britain in 2002 before becoming defense minister. Other officers in a similar predicament included former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon and former GOC Southern Command Doron Almog.
In September 2005, Almog flew to London and found that a British police officer was waiting in the terminal with an arrest warrant. Almog remained on the plane and returned to Israel to avoid an embarrassing incident.
Israel has brought up the subject over the past few weeks with the British government. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni demanded in separate meetings with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband that the British government work seriously to change the law that harms former IDF officers. Miliband said his government was working on the matter but did not promise anything.
After the incident in which Almog was almost arrested, a joint foreign ministry-justice ministry team worked to hire a major law firm in London to represent Israeli officers if they were arrested.
Senior officials met with a number of the most prominent London firms, some of which offered to provide the service pro bono. But none of the firms were hired, and the idea was set aside.