Threat of Netanyahu arrest may expedite Gaza hostage deal

The International Criminal Court is preparing to issue arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government figures on suspicion of war crimes in Gaza, reports suggest.

Growing speculation over ICC prosecutor Karim Khan’s intentions, and attempts by Israeli ministers to dissuade him, may lie behind the series of Israeli announcements in recent days about allowing more humanitarian aid into Gaza. Israel has been accused by some as using starvation as a weapon of war.

On Sunday night, Israel’s foreign ministry said it had informed Israeli embassies of “rumours” that warrants might be issued against senior political and military officials.

“We expect the court to prevent the issuance of arrest warrants,” foreign minister Israel Katz said, adding that they would “provide a morale boost” to Hamas and other militant groups.

The threat of ICC arrest warrants is also thought to be adding to pressure on Israel to obtain a ceasefire deal with Hamas – to curtail the bloodshed and speed the return of the surviving hostages.

Israel has vowed to expand its ground offensive to the southern Gazan city of Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians have sought shelter. Israel says Rafah is the last Hamas stronghold, with thousands of fighters embedded there.

But Israel is under pressure from the US and other allies not to proceed with a major offensive on the city.

Israeli reports suggested warrants will be served sometime this week against Netanyahu, defence minister Yoav Gallant and the chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, Herzl Halevi, and that Israeli officials were making “a concerted effort to head off feared plans by the ICC”.

On the Israeli news site Walla, analyst Ben Caspit said Netanyahu was “under unusual stress” over the prospect of an arrest warrant.

Netanyahu said on Twitter/X that Israel would “never accept any attempt by the ICC to undermine its inherent right of self-defence”.

Analysts say warrants against Netanyahu and his colleagues, which would endure even when they leave office, would have a chastening effect – and could influence the government’s actions for decades to come.

“This is being taken very, very seriously here,” Uri Bar Joseph of Haifa University told i. “It will have a tremendous effect on Israel, its policies and even the future of the Arab Israeli conflict.

“ICC arrest warrants will make Israeli policymakers think twice before they continue the occupation of the West Bank, because if they continue, there will be investigations relating to the West Bank … and future Israeli prime ministers won’t be able to do what Israel did now in Gaza.”

Reports suggest the US is scrambling to deter the ICC from issuing the warrants, which could lead to moves against Israel like an arms embargo or economic sanctions.

But given that Washington doesn’t recognise the court’s authority, its protests are unlikely to have much effect.

The ICC is thought to be considering arrest warrants against Hamas figures in relation to its assault on southern Israel on 7 October, which precipitated the current war.

Khan said on a visit to the region in December that an investigation was “moving forward at pace… with determination and with an insistence that we act not on emotion but on solid evidence”.

The investigation is thought to cover allegations going back to the 2014 Gaza war as well as Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territory that the Palestinians want for a future state.

Unlike the International Court of Justice, which has been hearing claims filed by South Africa that Israel has committed acts of genocide in Gaza, the ICC handles cases against individuals.

If the court issues an arrest warrant, each of the 123 ICC member states will be obligated to arrest and hand over the suspect found on their territory to The Hague.

In March last year, the ICC issued a warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine. Putin’s travel options are now severely limited.

An ICC arrest warrant would lump Netanyahu with international pariahs such as former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Neither Israel nor its ally the United States accept the ICC’s jurisdiction, but any warrants could put Israeli officials at risk of arrest in other allied countries, including Britain, France and Germany, which are signatories to the court.

ICC arrest warrants would also serve as a crushing reproach of Israel’s actions at a time when pro-Palestinian protests have spread across US college campuses and the Jewish state is facing international opprobrium for Gaza’s devastation.

Israel’s military campaign was prompted by Hamas attacking Israel on 7 October, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 hostages.

Israel’s air, sea and ground offensive into Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

Some Israeli experts think the government’s truculent language has further provoked the ICC court. Eliav Lieblich of Tel Aviv University told Haaretz newspaper that belligerent statements by Israeli politicians have not helped.

He cited demands from Israel Katz, now foreign minister, that Gaza’s water supply be cut off because “that’s what murderers of children deserve”. Diaspora affairs minister Amichai Chikli said the dropping of a nuclear bomb on the enclave was “an option” because Israel “must find ways to cause suffering in Gaza”.

The widespread destruction of Gazan hospitals and universities by Israeli forces and deadly attacks against aid workers, notably the drone attacks on the World Central Kitchen on 1 April, may have further sharpened the ICC’s determination to act.