US lashes out after Israeli officials targeted with arrest warrants

U.S. officials went on the offensive Monday after the International Criminal Court (ICC) filed arrest warrants against two top Israeli leaders over the war in Gaza, a move that Congress and the White House slammed for equating Israel’s conduct with the Palestinian militant group’s Oct. 7 attack.

President Biden and moderate Democrats united with Republicans in Congress to criticize the ICC shortly after the Monday notice that arrest warrants had been filed for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, along with three top Hamas officials.

They argued the ICC has no jurisdiction in the case and was undermining its own credibility, while House Republican leaders threatened to sanction the court over the warrants.

Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the ICC inserted a “false moral equivalency” for issuing arrest warrants targeting both Hamas and Israel.

“Today’s ICC decision is absurd. The ICC, like the rest of the international community, continues to be obsessed with targeting Israel during its time of need,” Risch said in a statement. “Today’s actions have hurt the credibility of the court and seriously harmed legitimate accountability efforts where true war crimes are occurring, like Ukraine, Syria, and across Africa.”

The White House also criticized the ICC for the arrest warrants, with Biden calling it “outrageous” in a statement and denouncing the equivalence of Hamas and Israel.

White House national security communications adviser John Kirby told reporters that while there have been too many casualties in Gaza, the Israeli military is not intentionally targeting civilians.

“[Israeli] soldiers are not waking up in the morning putting their boots on the ground with direct orders to go kill innocent civilians in Gaza,” he said.

The U.S. and Israel have repeatedly contrasted the army’s actions with Hamas, saying the militant group deliberately targeted Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 when fighters killed more than 1,100 people and took another roughly 250 hostages, about 130 of whom are still being held captive, an unknown number alive. They also accuse Hamas of using civilians as human shields in Gaza.

“There should be no equivalence at all,” Kirby said. “It’s ridiculous.”

But ICC top prosecutor Karim Khan deflected criticism in a Monday interview with CNN, noting he appointed an independent panel of international law experts to review the warrant process.

Khan said Israel has a right to defend itself, but it must still comply with international humanitarian law because no country has a “get out of jail free card.”

“This is not a witch hunt. This is not some kind of emotional reaction to noise,” he said. “The way I look at things is look at the evidence. Look at the conduct. Look at the victims and airbrush out the nationality and if a crime has been committed, we should move forward.”

The arrest warrants will have to be finalized by a pretrial chamber at the ICC, which has the power to add or remove charges. The chamber will also hear arguments on whether the ICC has jurisdiction in this matter, which the Biden administration has argued it does not.

Israel is not party to the ICC, but the court recognizes the state of Palestine as a member. While Palestine does not have an official country, it has been recognized by the United Nations. Its membership to the ICC may give jurisdiction in the dispute because the territories of Gaza and the West Bank are involved in the conflict.

Richard Wilson, professor at the school of law at the University of Connecticut and an expert in international human rights and international court tribunals, said Khan is “very experienced,” as well as being a former defense attorney, and likely filed a narrower case that would be easier to prove.

“Now he’s in the prosecutor’s seat,” Wilson told The Hill. “I see the indictments as fairly narrow, circumscribed, cautious. And I haven’t seen his evidence, but I’m assuming he only included those charges for which he felt he had strong enough evidence.”

The ICC arrest warrants also led to immediate condemnation from Israel. Foreign Minister Israel Katz called it an attempt to “shackle Israel’s hands and prevent it from exercising its right to self-defense” and a “historical disgrace that will be remembered forever,” in a statement.

“I reject with disgust the comparison of the prosecutor in The Hague between democratic Israel and the mass murderers of Hamas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added in his video statement.

Hamas also denounced the ICC in a statement for what it said was an attempt to “equate the victim with the executioner” without a legal basis, arguing it had the right to “resist the occupation in all forms, including armed resistance.”

The arrest warrants for Israel will likely complicate domestic tensions in the U.S. as protests against American support for Israel’s war against Hamas continue to roil the country. The warrants also follow a State Department finding earlier this month that it was “reasonable to assess” Israel has committed violations of international humanitarian law with U.S. weapons, though it did not offer a conclusive finding because of limitations on reviewing specific incidents.

Biden has struggled to balance criticism of Israel’s conduct in Gaza — where more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in more than seven months of war — with “ironclad” support for Israel as it wages its war on Hamas.

Biden has set up a pier off the coast of Gaza to facilitate humanitarian aid into the besieged territory, where famine is already raging in the north. He has held back high-payload bombs from Israel and threatened to withhold offensive weapons if limited Israel operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering, expand into a full-blown invasion.

Those moves have done little to satisfy outrage from Biden’s left flank with the suffering in Gaza. At the same time, Republicans have slammed Biden for holding back 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs from Israel. The GOP-led House passed a resolution last week that seeks to force the president to reverse the pause on the arms shipments.

The ICC, an independent court established in 2002, tries individuals for crimes and the 124 nations that are party to the court are obliged to arrest wanted persons. The U.S. is not party to the ICC, but many allies are, including members of the western security alliance NATO.

Katz, the Israeli foreign minister, said he was establishing a “special command” to fight against the ICC, including by contacting other nations to ensure they won’t enforce the warrants.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the ICC for a “shameful” move and accused court staff of backing down from a visit to Israel on Monday — the same day the warrants were issued — to discuss the Israeli perspective on the matter.

Blinken also argued the ICC made a “rush to seek these arrest warrants rather than allowing the Israeli legal system a full and timely opportunity to proceed.”

Khan said in his statement Monday the ICC conducted an impartial investigation into the war in Gaza and found evidence of war crimes facilitated by Netanyahu and Gallant in Israel, including using starvation as a weapon of war and intentionally directing attacks on civilians.

Khan also charged Yahya Sinwar, the top Hamas leader in Gaza; Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau; and military wing commander Mohammed Diab Ibrahim al-Masri all with war crimes, accusing them of bearing responsibility for the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel and of putting hostages in inhumane conditions.

The warrants for Israeli officials could spur Congress to pass legislation that sanctions the ICC, as Republicans threatened to do after the incoming court decision was leaked to the press last month.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), chair of the House Republican Conference, doubled down on those threats Monday.

“The ICC is an illegitimate court that equivocates a peaceful nation protecting its right to exist with radical terror groups that commit genocide,” she said on the social platform X.

Still, progressives are calling for the U.S. to comply with the ICC ruling, comparing it to how Washington has fully backed the court issuing arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin for his alleged participation in abducting children from Ukraine.

Nancy Okai, president and CEO of the progressive think tank Center for International Policy, said in a statement that the ICC decision targeting both Hamas and Israeli officials was a welcome step that reinforced the impartiality of applying international humanitarian law.

“One need not agree with the prosecutor’s allegations to respect and defend the legitimacy of the court, its processes and the law which it is tasked to enforce,” Okai said, calling for the U.S. to cooperate with the ICC. “Any attempt to penalize or intimidate the court or its officers must be categorically condemned.”

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