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Israeli army officers fear arrest in UK

Visit cancelled over threat of prosecution for alleged war crimes against Palestinians

A group of Israeli army officers has cancelled a visit to Britain because London was unable to guarantee they would not be arrested for alleged war crimes under universal jurisdiction provisions, Israeli officials said yesterday.

Four officers, including a major, a lieutenant colonel and a colonel had been due to visit last week at the invitation of the British Army.

An Israeli official declined to specify the purpose of the visit but said that Israeli officers are invited to Britain "to assist in defensive technology in the military arena".

The incident has fuelled Israeli anger at the British Government for not yet following through on promised changes to the law so that Israeli officers and officials do not run the risk of arrest on UK soil. There have been several incidents in which visiting Israelis have been vulnerable to arrest.

The announcement of the cancellation came as the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, was in Israel on a private visit where she met the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon. "These officials were invited by Great Britain, but they will stay in Israel as long as we do not have a 100 per cent guarantee that they will not become objects of criminal lawsuits in that country," Mr Ayalon said. "This matter will shake the good relations between the two countries that share values and far-reaching interests. The British must remember that such visits serve both countries."

Last month, it emerged that a London court had issued an arrest warrant against the former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, at the behest of pro-Palestinian activists. They had demanded the warrant on the grounds that Ms Livni was responsible for war crimes during Israel's devastating Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last winter, which took the lives of an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

Ms Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima party, called off her trip, but the incident sparked a diplomatic row between Britain and Israel.

Under British law, courts are allowed to issue warrants for war crime suspects around the world, but Mr Ayalon claimed that pro-Palestinian groups were "manipulating and abusing" the legislation.

In a speech at Jerusalem's Hebrew University last night, Lady Scotland noted that the British Government "is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed to avoid this situation arising again and is determined that Israel's leaders should always be able to travel freely to the UK."

Palestinians and their supporters, however, oppose amending the law and argue that Israelis should be held accountable for alleged abuses and war crimes. We believe no attempt should be made [to change the law]," Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, told the Associated Press. "There's no reason why Israel should be singled out for special treatment. If they're accused of war crimes, we have a duty – and legislation – to prosecute."

A United Nations commission of inquiry led by Justice Richard Goldstone last year found that the Israeli army's own investigations of its troops do not meet international legal standards.