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Immunity and impunity: Britain protects Tzipi Livni once again

Once again, Israeli opposition politician and war crimes suspect Tzipi Livni has been granted diplomatic immunity by the British government for a private visit to London.

Last week, Scotland Yard’s War Crimes Unit invited Tzipi Livni to a police interview under caution, in relation to her role in Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008 (Operation Cast Lead). At the time, Livni was foreign minister, vice prime minister, and a member of the security cabinet.

The summons, described in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz as “unprecedented”, was only “cancelled after diplomatic contacts between Israel and Britain, at the end of which Livni received immunity.”

The invitation to an interview under caution was made days before Livni’s scheduled appearance at a conference in London organised by Ha’aretz. Following receipt of the invitation by police, the highest levels of the Israeli government became involved, including the Prime Minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

They need not have worried; according to the paper’s account, the UK Foreign Office agreed for a meeting to be “arranged for Livni with the minister in charge of Middle Eastern affairs”, so that “Livni’s visit to London would acquire the status of a ‘special diplomatic assignment’”, and thus “automatically grant her immunity from arrest and prosecution.”

This is now the fourth time that Livni has been given immunity by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in similar circumstances.

In 2009, a British judge issued an arrest warrant for the Israeli politician ahead of a visit to London that was subsequently cancelled. Two years later, after Israeli pressure, the government changed the legislation on universal jurisdiction.

But this did not eliminate the possibility of arrest for those with a case to answer, as the farcical circumstances of Livni’s visit in October 2011 – when officials scrambled to grant her diplomatic immunity – ably demonstrated.

Livni also visited London in 2014 and 2015, for a Jewish National Fund conference and Fortune’s ‘Most Powerful Women International Summit’ respectively. On both occasions the FCO arranged meetings for Livni with British officials, and granted her visits Special Mission status.

Responding to the latest developments this last week, the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) slammed the FCO’s “attempt to protect [Livni] from arrest and prosecution.”

PCHR acts on behalf of the brother of Na’im Ashour Al-Ghefari, who “died with more than 60 other civilian police officers and trainees when the police compound in Gaza City was bombed by Israeli war planes on 27 December 2008 while a graduation ceremony of police cadets was taking place.”

The “deliberate killing” of these police officers, part of an intentional decision by Israel’s senior decision-makers to pursue a “shock and awe” effect in Gaza, was deemed to have been a violation of international humanitarian law by The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

In their press release, PCHR said that the FCO’s granting of Special Mission immunity to Livni was “unwarranted, and inappropriate”, given that she was visiting the UK “in her private capacity in order to attend a conference organised by a newspaper.”

To arrange a meeting with an FCO official “only after Scotland Yard’s invitation to interview her,” PCHR claimed, “can only have been a calculated interference in due process on the part of the police”, and was “organised solely to facilitate the granting of immunity during her visit here.”

Last year, an Amnesty International UK official told me it is “well known” that “UK authorities are content to undermine efforts to bring alleged Israeli war criminals to justice.” Such steps, which serve to “undermine international justice and entrench impunity”, are continuing.

Asked to comment on the latest decision to grant Livni’s visit Special Mission status, an FCO spokesperson said: “we don’t publish special mission status decisions as they are made.”

Speaking to Israeli Army Radio, Livni claimed that she had “declined immunity for her current trip to Britain on principle…to test what British authorities would do in cases of Israelis who are not eligible for diplomatic immunity but who could be pursued for alleged war crimes.”

This would appear to be a lie – in fact, once more, Livni relied on FCO-granted immunity.

Daniel Machover, a London-based lawyer acting for the victims, said he would “welcome” Livni agreeing to attend the police interview, and wondered why, if she was so confident that she has no case to answer, “she would decline the offer to meet the police” and defend her actions.

Such a prospect seems unlikely, as long as Livni and Israeli officials will not run the risk of arrest, and as long as the FCO is willing to grant immunity for war crimes suspects.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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