Israel 9-year secret war on ICC exposed: Guardian investigation

Yasmine Osama Farag , Wednesday 29 May 2024

An investigation by The Guardian revealed how Israel runs an almost decade-long secret war against the International Criminal Court (ICC), as the country has deployed its intelligence agencies to surveil, hack, pressure, smear, stalk, and threaten senior ICC staff in an attempt to derail the court’s inquiries into its war crimes against the Palestinians.

Karim Khan   Fatou Bensouda
Combined images of (From L to R) The chief prosecutor of the (ICC) Karim Khan and Former chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.


The revelation came a week after the ICC's chief prosecutor Karim Khan announced he was seeking arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza.

Israeli intelligence captured the communications of numerous ICC officials, including Khan and his predecessor prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, intercepting phone calls, messages, emails, and documents, according to the investigation in which the Israel-based magazines +972 and Local Call took part.  

The surveillance was ongoing in recent months, giving Netanyahu advance knowledge of Khan’s intentions. 

The investigation drew on interviews with more than two dozen current and former Israeli intelligence officers and government officials, senior ICC figures, diplomats, and lawyers familiar with the ICC case and Israel’s efforts to undermine it.

A recent intercepted communication suggested that Khan wanted to issue arrest warrants against Israelis but was under “tremendous pressure from the United States,” according to a source familiar with its contents. 

At least two weeks before the arrest warrant was issued, Netanyahu asked Biden to help prevent the court from issuing arrest warrants for senior Israeli officials.

At that time, US officials said they did not have a clear indication of whether the ICC would issue it.

Threats and stalking

Chief prosecutor Bensouda, who opened the ICC’s investigation in 2021 into Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity in the occupied Palestinian territories, paving the way for last week’s announcement, was also spied on and "threatened."

Yossi Cohen, former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency Mossad, threatened Bensouda in a series of secret meetings, trying to pressure her into abandoning a war crimes investigation, The Guardian revealed.

According to accounts shared with ICC officials, Cohen allegedly told Bensouda: “You should help us and let us take care of you. You don’t want to be getting into things that could compromise your security or that of your family.” 

The Mossad also took a keen interest in Bensouda’s family members and obtained transcripts of secret recordings of her husband, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the situation.

Israeli officials then attempted to use the material to discredit the prosecutor. 

One individual briefed on Cohen’s activities said he had used “despicable tactics” against Bensouda as part of an ultimately unsuccessful effort to intimidate and influence her. They likened his behaviour to “stalking.”

Moreover, five sources familiar with Israel’s intelligence activities said it routinely spied on the phone calls made by Bensouda and her staff with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. 

Officials also became aware of specific threats against Al-Haq, a prominent Palestinian NGO and one of several human rights groups that frequently submitted information to the ICC inquiry, often in lengthy documents detailing incidents it wanted the prosecutor to consider. The Palestinian Authority also submitted similar dossiers. 

According to the investigation, Netanyahu has taken a close interest in the intelligence operations against the ICC and was described by one intelligence source as “obsessed” with intercepts about the case. 

The investigation also revealed the US's role in this Israeli war on the ICC.

In March 2020, three months after Bensouda referred the Palestine case to the pre-trial chamber, an Israeli government delegation reportedly held discussions in Washington with senior US officials about “a joint Israeli-American struggle” against the ICC, it said.

Since Bensouda had received authorization from the ICC’s judges to pursue a separate investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan, the US Donald Trump administration was engaged in its aggressive campaign against the ICC, culminating in the 2020 summer with the imposition of US economic sanctions on Bensouda and one of her top officials.

Among ICC officials, the US-led financial and visa restrictions on court personnel were believed to relate as much to the Palestine investigation as to the Afghanistan case.

Two former ICC officials said senior Israeli officials had expressly indicated to them that Israel and the US were working together.

The Guardian indicated that when Khan announced he was seeking arrest warrants against Israeli leaders, he issued a cryptic warning: “I insist that all attempts to impede, intimidate or improperly influence the officials of this court must cease immediately.”

However, he did not say who had attempted to intervene in the administration of justice, or how exactly they had done so.

The anti-Semitic card was also played to the full by Israeli and US lawmakers, who sought to delegitimize the ICC, considering Israel to be a democratic state that should never be charged with such crimes. 

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Khan said a senior US elected official even told him that the ICC “was built for Africa” and for “thugs like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” but not Western or Western-backed leaders.

Last week, Khan told the Sunday Times newspaper that countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia were watching closely as to whether global institutions would seek to uphold international law.

"Are powerful states sincere when they say there's a body of law or is this rules-based system all a nonsense, simply a tool of NATO and a post-colonial world, with no real intention of applying law equally?" Khan asked.

The warrants, if granted by the ICC judges, would mean that any of the 124 ICC member states would technically be obliged to arrest Netanyahu and the others if they travel there.


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