Republican senators warn ICC prosecutor: Target Israel, and we will target you

Despite warning from world court’s top lawyer against meddling, lawmakers led by Tom Cotton threaten sanctions, US visa bans if arrest warrants are issued against Israeli officials

Sen. Tom Cotton speaks with reporters at the Senate Subway on Capitol Hill, March 20, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Mariam Zuhaib)
Sen. Tom Cotton speaks with reporters at the Senate Subway on Capitol Hill, March 20, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Mariam Zuhaib)

A dozen Republican senators on Monday sent a letter warning International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Karim Khan not to issue arrest warrants for senior Israeli officials, days after the British lawyer cautioned against efforts to try to sway the court.

“Target Israel, and we will target you,” the senators, led by Sen. Tom Cotton, warned in the letter. “Such actions are illegitimate and lack legal basis, and, if carried out, will result in severe sanctions against you and your institution.”

Sens. Mitch McConnell (minority leader), Rick Scott, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio also signed the letter, amid increasing concern in Israel that the UN court could issue arrest warrants for senior political and military officials over the nearly-seven-month-old war in Gaza, including against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi.

As reports swirled of US and Israeli efforts to dissuade the court from issuing arrest orders, the ICC prosecutor said on Friday that, while the ICC “welcomes open communication” with government officials and non-governmental bodies alike, it will only engage in such dialogue so long as it is “consistent with its mandate under the Rome Statute to act independently and impartially.”

“That independence and impartiality are undermined, however, when individuals threaten to retaliate… should the office, in fulfillment of its mandate, make decisions about investigations or cases falling within its jurisdiction,” he added, demanding that “all attempts to impede, intimidate or improperly influence its officials cease immediately.”

Nevertheless, the senators charged in the letter that the ICC “is attempting to punish Israel for taking legitimate actions of self-defense against their Iranian-backed aggressors. In fact, in your own words, you witnessed ‘scenes of calculated cruelty’ conducted by Hamas in Israel following the October 7 attacks.”

Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan visits a Gaza border town attacked by Hamas, on December 3, 2023. (Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum)

Khan visited Israel in December 2023 at the request of families of Hamas hostages. During his visit, he toured some of the communities attacked during the October 7 Hamas onslaught, including Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Kfar Aza, and heard testimonies from survivors of the massacre.

“These arrest warrants would align the ICC with the largest state sponsor of terrorism and its proxy. To be clear, there is no moral equivalence between Hamas’s terrorism and Israel’s justified response,” the senators wrote.

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Vowing to eliminate the terror group and return the hostages, Israel launched a wide-scale operation in Gaza that has come under international rebuke as the death toll mounts and UN bodies warn of looming famine.

The senators’ letter also noted that the ICC is only allow to charge individuals from countries in which the government is “unwilling or unable to police themselves.”

“You yourself have said that ‘Israel has trained lawyers who advise commanders and a robust system intended to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law.’ By issuing warrants, you would be calling into question the legitimacy of Israel’s laws, legal system, and democratic form of government,” the senators wrote.

From left: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi at a cadets graduation ceremony at the IDF’s officers school in southern Israel, known as Bahad 1, March 7, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“If you move forward with the measures indicated in the report, we will move to end all American support for the ICC, sanction your employees and associates, and bar you and your families from the United States,” the letter stated. “You have been warned.”

In recent weeks, Israel has reportedly told the US that the Palestinian Authority may be pushing the court to issue the arrest warrants and warned that it would retaliate against the PA if they came to be.

Last week, Axios reported that US Congress members from both parties had warned the ICC that Washington would also retaliate against the court, including by passing legislation that would sanction ICC officials, if it issues the potential warrants, amid fears that such a move could sink a hostages-for-truce agreement in the works between Israel and Hamas.

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