Israel’s Benny Gantz Faces Dutch War Crimes Case

October 1, 2019

Ismail Ziada, a Dutch Palestinian who lost six family members when Israel bombarded his home in Gaza, is taking Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel's Blue and White Party, to court for killing his family. Prof. Hilla Dayan, who observed the proceedings, discusses the case and its impact on Israeli politics.

Ismail Ziada, a Dutch Palestinian who lost six family members when Israel bombarded his home in Gaza, is taking Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel's Blue and White Party, to court for killing his family. Prof. Hilla Dayan, who observed the proceedings, discusses the case and its impact on Israeli politics.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington.

The Chairman of the Israeli Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz, won more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the election that took place in Israel about two weeks ago. Nonetheless, Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, decided to first give Netanyahu the right to try and form a coalition government. The reason for Rivlin’s decision is that Gantz appealed to one of the parties that support him, the Joint List, and asked them to support him only halfway, so that Netanyahu would have the opportunity to form a coalition government first. Now, why did Gantz give up the opportunity to form a coalition before Netanyahu? One possibility is that Gantz is distracted with a court case in The Netherlands which is debating whether to issue an arrest warrant against him on charges of war crimes.

On the same day that elections were held in Israel on September 17, a court in The Hague, Netherlands, discussed a charge by Ismail Ziada, a Dutch citizen from the Gaza Strip. Ziada filed charges against two men, Benny Gantz and Amir Eshel. In the course of his testimony, Ismail Ziada recounted how, on July 20th, 2014, during the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, his home in the al-Bureij refugee camp, in the center of the Gaza Strip, was bombarded. Ziada’s mother, Muftia Ziada, his brothers, Jamil, Yousif and Omar, and his sister-in-law, Bayan, and his 12-year-old nephew, Shaban, were all killed in the bombing. During the invasion, Benny Gantz was the commander of the Israeli military, and Amir Eshel was the commander of the Air Force. A member of the Ziada family had the following to say about the case.

SPEAKER: Whether Gantz forms a government or becomes a prime minister, we, the Ziada family, and through our brother, Ismail, we will continue to pursue him in international courts. And we will look for any way or opportunity to judicially pursue him so we would criminalize him and have him in trial for the awful crime that was committed against six members of our family who got killed.

GREG WILPERT: We’re now joined by Professor Hilla Dayan, who was present during the court proceedings in The Hague. She is the Founder of the organization Academia for Equality, a Hebrew-speaking network of scholars from around the world dedicated to issues of social and political justice. Also, she teaches Comparative Democracy and Sociology of the Other at the Amsterdam University College. Thanks for joining us today, Hilla.

HILLA DAYAN: Thank you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So one of the reasons that we invited you to speak about this case is that you live in The Netherlands and you speak Dutch as well as Hebrew. And so, can you tell us if this case has received any public attention in The Netherlands and in Israel? And if so, do you think it might’ve affected the vote of some Israelis thinking that that the man that they were voting for may be charged with war crimes?

HILLA DAYAN: Well, first let me tell you that the hearing was an amazing event, and I left it really tantalized. The courtroom was full of spectators, and the audience was mainly activists and supporters of the Ziada family, which was really heartwarming as an activist. And as for coverage of the case, I believe it was quite widely and extensively covered by main news outlets: Le Monde, New York Times, and the Dutch press. Israeli press also covered it; I have to say mainly online news. And as far as I can tell from following up on the case reception in Israel, no television covered the court hearing that day.

So I think that in terms of exposure to the Israeli voters, constituency, the case was not big news at all, although it did win some significant international headlines. In Israel, I believe no voter was dissuaded to vote Blue and White because of the court case. Most of the votes of Blue and White are from the Zionist center. It’s a centrist party that is very hawkish on military affairs and on security issues. He is quite fresh, a fresh and commander of the IDF coming to the political scene as a green politician. And everybody, sort of, that votes for this party was supporting him as a military figure, first and foremost. So those who did not support or did not vote for this party are… Mostly, other votes went to Labor and to the Democratic Camp. Of course, the Joint List came out the third largest party in the elections, which was an incredibly positive development in the results.

GREG WILPERT: I want to turn to Gantz himself. Now, do you think that his maneuvering to allow Netanyahu to go first with the formation of a new coalition government in Israel, is that related to the trial?

HILLA DAYAN: I believe that the trial is not a significant strategic concern for him. There have been other trials going on against Tzipi Livni if I’m not mistaken, and other very high-profile people have faced some sort of proceedings against them, and it did not all influence their careers in the political scene in Israel. So I believe it’s not really calculated into his considerations. However, I think that it’s, if I may, it’s quite an interesting and unprecedented hearing. And maybe you’d like to know more about why it is being heard in a civilian court rather than in an international court, where all the other case proceedings were pursued.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah. I want to get to exactly that point. But actually, I first wanted to ask you something else, that is about what actually happened in that proceeding that you observed. Obviously, Benny Gantz and Amir Eshel did not come to The Hague to defend themselves. So who is defending them? And what is the main issue that the court has to decide now?

HILLA DAYAN: First of all, for your viewers and everyone watching, it’s very important to know that coming to The Hague should not be confused with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, right? That’s the international instance where grave human rights violations are being prosecuted. But here we’re talking about the courts in The Netherlands. So it’s the Supreme Court of The Netherlands in The Hague. And that’s an important distinction. It’s just the normal national court system.

He was represented by at least two law firms that we know of are representing Gantz and Eshel. This is quite an investment. It’s being directly funded by the government of Israel, their defense. But we were surprised to see that, in the hearing, they sent very, very young advocates to merely rehearse or read aloud the arguments against the lawsuit. So we expected a much more heavy presence from the representatives of Gantz and Eshel, but yeah, the presence in court was really junior advocates. So it seemed very young and very… Yeah, there was not a lot of anything happening other than them reading from the already submitted text in front of the audience in court.

GREG WILPERT: Now, ever since the Palestinian government in Ramallah signed the Rome Convention of the International Criminal Court, the Gaza Strip actually falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC in The Hague. So why is this case taking place in a local court and not in the International Criminal Court, as you say?

HILLA DAYAN: Yeah. In fact, the most high-profile advocate of this entire legal case is Liesbeth Zegveld. She is one of the most well-known human rights advocates in The Netherlands, and in Europe generally. And she’s representing the Ziada family. And I think that her decision to address the courts in The Netherlands are entirely her … The strategy is, because The Netherlands allows international jurisdiction, allows citizens of its country to seek justice if something happened to them in another place, they are allowed to seek justice for damages and for grave violations that happened in a third country. So the Netherlands recognizes this right of international jurisdiction in its national courts.

And that is why I think the case of Ismail Ziada rests primarily on basically two arguments. One, this was the attack on the home in Gaza was an act of war crime. And second is Ismail Ziada is claiming compensation which he intends to donate to the families of the people killed in Gaza in that operation. And he’s claiming recognition for it as a war crime. Liesbeth Zegveld is arguing that he cannot get any recourse to any system of justice, and especially not the Israeli justice system. And on that basis, she asserts his right as a Dutch citizen, holding citizenship, to pursue his case in The Netherlands. And I think that’s the core of the prosecution.

And again, this is unprecedented. There has never been any case like that before, something that of course the defenders of Eshel and Gantz argued that there was no precedent, that this is a violation of state sovereignty, et cetera, et cetera. And they have made many other arguments. It’s interesting to see that, during their layout of their argumentation, they started with the most basic rules in international law, the stipulations concerning state sovereignty, non-violation of state sovereignty, and of course, the issue of the immunity that holders of official positions in the government or in the states have against individual persecution. These are very solid and very, you can say well-founded-in-legal-books principles that they’ve argued.

But what’s more interesting is when they turned, in the second part of their speeches, to much more political arguments against the case. And that’s when it got really interesting, because it was very clear that, behind the argumentation, is the state of Israel. It’s an argumentation that is decidedly trying to portray the case as a political case, as setting up the Dutch system as a political stage for the Palestinians. They are trying to politicize the case and scare the courts, in my analysis, to simply throw it out. And they are arguing that, in this court case, the entire Israeli justice system is tending to the judgment of The Netherlands and its court system; something unheard of, something that is never done. And that also, the court in The Netherlands has no experience like the Israeli justice system has in issues of war, etc. And that the court of justice in The Netherlands is also not entitled at all to judge on these matters concerning the validity of the Israeli justice system.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. I mean, I want to just also note of course that more than 2000 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli forces during the 2014 invasion of Gaza, and only a handful of them have European citizenship in order to take this case to court. But like I said, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Hilla Dayan, Professor of Comparative Democracy and Sociology of the Other at the Amsterdam University College. Thanks again, Hilla, for having joined us today.

HILLA DAYAN: Thank you very much.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.