Israel wants Dutch case against ex-army chief dropped

FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019 file photo, former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz speaks at the official launch of his election campaign in Tel Aviv, Israel. The Israeli Justice Ministry said Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, that the government has asked a Dutch court to dismiss war crimes allegations against Benny Gantz, an ex-military chief who is challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April elections. A Dutch-Palestinian man originally from the Gaza Strip is suing Gantz and Israel's former air force chief, Amir Eshel, for their roles in an airstrike on his family's home that killed six relatives. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Justice Ministry on Monday said the government has asked a Dutch court to dismiss war crimes allegations against Benny Gantz, an ex-military chief who is challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April elections.

A Dutch-Palestinian man originally from the Gaza Strip is suing Gantz and Israel's former air force chief, Amir Eshel, for their roles in an airstrike on his family's home that killed six relatives. The dead included a 72-year-old woman and a 12-year-old child.

The airstrike on the Zeyada family home took place during a 2014 war between Israel and Gaza militants.

The ministry said Monday an internal Israeli military investigation determined the airstrike had killed four militants, including three family members, hiding in the house. It said the attack was permissible under international law, and argued the Dutch court does not have jurisdiction. Gaza's Hamas rulers themselves have said that two militants were in the building.

"Israel has several mechanisms in place and a robust legal system available to address allegations such as those raised by the plaintiff," the ministry said.

"Litigating the lawsuit before a Dutch court would circumvent fundamental and long-recognized principles of state immunity. Accordingly, a motion to summarily dismiss the case has been filed in the Netherlands on behalf of the two former Israeli officials," it added.

Hassan Zeyada, a Gaza psychologist, said his family had turned to the Dutch court because it does not believe the Israeli military is capable of investigating itself. His brother Ismail, who lives in the Hague, filed the lawsuit.

"The objective is accountability," Zeyada said. "It's possible that our case will be a model for all bereaved families to achieve justice and accountability."

On the campaign trail, Gantz has touted his leadership of the 2014 war as a reason to vote for him. In a campaign ad, he boasted of killing 1,364 "terrorists" in the fighting.

"If Gantz claims he enjoyed immunity because he was acting on behalf of the state, why he is bragging about destroying Gaza for his personal election campaign?" Zeyada said.

A U.N. report has concluded that over 1,400 Palestinian civilians were killed in the fighting and said war crimes may have been committed by both sides. Israel has blamed Hamas for the civilian casualties, saying the group hid fighters and launched attacks from residential neighborhoods.

Gantz, who left the military in 2015, has burst onto the Israeli political scene and quickly emerged as the top challenger to Netanyahu in the April vote.

Liesbeth Zegveld, the Dutch lawyer handling the case, said it was filed last year and is still in the procedural phase as the court decides whether it has jurisdiction.

The family "is arguing that they do not have access to an Israeli court, that is highly discriminatory against them, that there are so many obstacles that they never get a ruling," she said. "So we are arguing that they should be given permission to plead their case before a Dutch court."

Zegveld said there is no precedent for such a case, but she hopes the Dutch court will agree to take it.

In a separate case, the International Criminal Court has been conducting a preliminary inquiry in the Palestinian territories that, among other things, is looking into possible crimes committed by Israel and Hamas in the 2014 war. The court said recently that it hopes to wrap up the long-running investigation "as soon as possible."

Israel is not a member of the court and doesn't accept ICC jurisdiction. But Israeli forces could face charges if they are suspected of committing crimes in the Palestinian territories. The court has accepted the "State of Palestine" as a member.

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Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Michael Corder in the Hague, Netherlands contributed reporting.

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