Ministers to weigh legal immunity for troops; critics warn they risk Hague charges

Far-right Otzma Yehudit lawmaker’s bill would protect security forces from prosecution for any actions during operational activities

Palestinians confront Israeli soldiers while waving Palestinian flags in the center of the town of Huwara, in the West Bank, March 2, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinians confront Israeli soldiers while waving Palestinian flags in the center of the town of Huwara, in the West Bank. March 2, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to review a bill next week granting police and soldiers immunity from criminal prosecution for any action they might take while on operational duty.

The legislation is a private member’s bill submitted by MK Zvika Fogel of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. Ministers are set to consider the proposal on Sunday and will decide if it can advance for a preliminary reading in the Knesset, Haaretz reported.

Critics have warned that the legislation could expose security personnel to prosecution abroad, including at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, if the global community no longer considers Israel to have a reasonable internal justice system for dealing with accusations.

Israel has long argued against such probes, pointing to the strength and independence of its own judiciary, which is responsible for investigating incidents of alleged wrongdoing by Israeli forces.

The explanatory notes for the bill, proposed in January, state that its purpose is to “allow the security forces to carry out their missions without fear” of prosecution.

“IDF soldiers are becoming paralyzed in carrying out their missions due to fear” of being put on trial, the bill says.

The bill is meant to grant troops immunity for all acts carried out during operational or anti-terror activities, but not for deliberate crimes perpetrated outside of operations, including theft, looting, vandalizing equipment, taking bribes, abuse, humiliation, and violence toward uninvolved civilians.

A special panel will also have the authority to recommend removing immunity in specific cases.

Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel leads the Knesset’s National Security Committee meeting, in Jerusalem, February 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is also advancing a drastic shakeup of the judiciary, radically limiting High Court oversight, and giving the government the power to re-legislate laws struck down by the court as well as control over the panel that selects judges.

But critics of the government’s legal overhaul warn that efforts to restrict the High Court of Justice’s power will rob the country of legitimacy in the international arena.

Earlier this week, dozens of Israel Air Force pilots said they will no longer turn up for service or training in protest to the judicial plan. According to Channel 12, the pilots, reservists who continue to do active service, expressed to IAF chief Tomer Bar their fear that the government’s hardline conduct could expose them to prosecution by global bodies such as the International Criminal Court.

A legal source told Haaretz on Tuesday that “if beforehand the air force pilots had a reason to worry about The Hague due to the possible consequences of the judicial overhaul, approval of Fogel’s proposal will give them many more reasons to be worried.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has not yet given her opinion on the bill, but is expected to advise against it, Haaretz said.

There have been attempts to pass similar bills over the years, but none were approved by the Knesset.

The government is already advancing other controversial security-related legislation such as a death sentence for terrorists who kill Israelis.

Last month, Ahaz Ben-Ari, who served as the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser between 2007 and 2017, told The Times of Israel that the immunity legislation could open Israel up to international legal complications.

Ben-Ari said that during his tenure, joint efforts with the Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry, Military Advocate General, and other top legal officials were made to prevent courts in Europe from bringing charges against soldiers and politicians for incidents in the West Bank.

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