Spanish presses on with probe of Israeli officials over Gaza bombing

Spain: judge presses on with Israel probe

MADRID — A Spanish judge said Monday he will keep investigating seven current or former Israeli officials over a 2002 air force bombing in Gaza that killed a suspected Hamas militant and 14 civilians.

Prosecutors last month urged Judge Fernando Andreu of Spain’s National Court to suspend the inquiry on the grounds Israel was still investigating the attack. But Andreu rejected the request on Monday, saying he has found no evidence of such an investigation in Israel.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry called the decision “ridiculous” and groundless. A Palestinian human rights group hailed it as a “great victory.”

Andreu first agreed to open the case in January at the request of Palestinian relatives of victims of the attack. Nine children were among the dead.

Andreu said he was acting under Spain’s observance of the principle of universal jurisdiction, which holds that grave crimes such as genocide, terrorism or torture can be prosecuted here even if alleged to have been committed elsewhere.

Andreu said the 2002 bombing in densely populated Gaza City might constitute a crime against humanity. That attack with a one-ton bomb dropped from an Israeli F-16 targeted and killed alleged Hamas member Salah Shehadeh along with 14 other people. Israel has defended the attack as a legitimate strike against a terrorist.

On Monday, the Spanish judge wrote that Israel’s military conducted an internal investigation but Israeli military and civilian prosecutors declined to open proceedings of their own. He said for this reason Spain has jurisdiction to keep investigating.

“In Israel there has not been, nor is there now under way, any legal proceedings aimed at investigating” the Gaza bombing, the judge wrote.

Andreu’s initial decision to investigate infuriated the Israeli government. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said in response that Spain planned to modify its law to narrow the scope of universal jurisdiction cases to those with a clear link to Spain.

But no reform to this effect has yet to make it to the Spanish parliament for debate or a vote.

Last week another Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, announced an investigation into alleged torture of terror suspects at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, even though the Spanish attorney general has said such a procedure is up to the United States, not Spain.

The chief justice of the Spanish Supreme Court, Carlos Divar, said Monday an amendment to this country’s universal justice law is necessary because “we cannot become the world’s judicial gendarme.” Divar is also the chairman of a watchdog body that oversees the Spanish court system.

“This whole procedure in Spain is ridiculous,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. “They have no basis for this procedure because there is no evidence to support war crimes and it would credit the Spanish justice system if the procedure would end promptly.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he would speak to Spain’s defense and foreign ministers “and if need be the Spanish prime minister to act in order to remove the evil decree.”

Barak added: “There isn’t a more ethical army than the Israel Defense Forces. I have no doubt that those who acted then to hit Shehadeh acted with a clear head and an eye locked on one target only — to protect Israeli civilians.”

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, located in the Gaza Strip, said, “We welcome this decision as the first step toward justice for the survivors of a massive extra-judicial execution operation perpetrated by the Israeli Occupation Forces … This is a great victory.”

The seven being investigated include Dan Halutz, who commanded Israel’s air force at the time of the attack, and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, then defense minister and now the minister of trade.

The five others are Doron Almog, who at the time was commander of the air force in Gaza; Giora Eiland, then Israel’s National Security Adviser; Michael Herzog, who was with the Defense Ministry; Moshe Ya’alon, then chief of staff of the Israeli military; and Abraham Dichter, then director of the Shin Bet internal security agency, or General Security Service.

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AP correspondents Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.

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