Spain issues arrest warrant for Benjamin Netanyahu

The Spanish national court has reopened a 2010 case against seven current and former top Israeli leaders for a naval incident that resulted in the death of 10 Turkish activists. 

Ronen Zvulun
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015.

A Spanish judge has issued arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other former and current government officials for a deadly fight at sea in 2010. As long as the warrant is in effect, if Netanyahu and those officials set foot in the western European country, they could be detained and questioned.

The 2010 incident was a flotilla raid, in which a group of pro-Palestinian human rights activists attempted to disrupt an Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israeli naval forces were able to stop the flotilla, but when they boarded one of the activists’ ships, the Mavi Marmara, they were attacked by knives and clubs.

In an ensuing gun battle, nine activists died. Most of the deceased were part of a Turkish NGO, the IHH, that has alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In addition to Mr. Netanyahu, the implicated officials include former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, former defense ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Ehud Barak, former Interior Minister Eli Yishai, former Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, and Minister without Portfolio Bennie Begin.

The Israeli officials are largely dismissive of Spain’s warrants.

“It’s a provocation,” Foreign Ministry Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “The Israeli embassy in Madrid is in touch with Spanish General Prosecutor in order to close the file as promptly as possible.”

The Spanish case against Israel first emerged following the incident in 2010, when three Spaniards aboard the Mavi Marmara sued Netanyahu and his cohorts. Turkey and Britain also began prosecution against Israel, The Jerusalem Post reports, but both efforts have since been suspended.

In Spain, a judge in its National Court known as the Audiencia Nacional decided in 2010 the country no longer had the authority to file lawsuits regarding international incidents, despite its litigious track record in world affairs as a frontrunner in universal justice.

Referred to the International Criminal Court, an international tribunal established in The Hague in the Netherlands, the case was eventually dismissed.

That is, until Friday, when Spanish Judge Jose De La Mata found a legal loophole that gives Spanish authorities jurisdiction to reopen the case if any of the seven Israeli officials set foot in Spain.

Judge De La Mata has instructed Spanish police to keep tabs on the travel movements of “The Seven” incriminated Israeli officials. With the exception of Netanyahu, who has international immunity, the leaders could be placed under arrest and detained if they enter Spain.

“This is an issue that has been subject to legal proceedings for several years now,” Nahshon told Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. “We hope that the case will be closed soon, as it should have been a long time ago.”

In 2002, following the Israel Defense Forces’ bombing of Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, Spain brought forth a slew of war crime allegations against the Jewish state under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The judiciary investigation halted in 2009, however, when the Supreme Court of Spain upheld the decision of lower courts and Israel’s High Court in favor of the IDF. The bombing killed 15 civilians and injured 150 others.

In another instance of exceptional conviction under universal jurisdiction, Spain launched a 2006 investigation into whether seven former Chinese leaders, including former President Jiang Zemin, had committed genocide in Tibet in 1950. The probe was shelved in 2010 for the same reason as the flotilla raid initially.  

Spain had considerable success in extraditing former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998. The Audiencia Nacional had accepted in 1996 a lawsuit against the despot under charges of terrorism, torture, and genocide. Pinochet was arrested in London – the first time a former head of state had been apprehended under universal jurisdiction – and British judges ruled in favor of his extradition to Spain.

But the extradition never happened, and Pinochet was released back to Chile in 2000. Still, human rights activists consider it a milestone in the pursuit of global justice.

Today, such efforts persist. The Spanish judge who went after Pinochet 20 years ago, Baltasar Garzón, is still fighting for the legitimacy of international justice. Except now, he’s targeting big corporations he says are guilty of labor abuse and excessive pollution.

“Humanitarian and economic crises cause more deaths around the world than all of the genocides we have documented,” Garzón told The Guardian in August.

In September, he was part of an international congregation of activists, judges, and academics who met in Argentina to expand the salience of universal jurisdiction.

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