Westminster Magistrates court in central London rejected on Tuesday a petition urging the issuance of an arrest warrant for Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the grounds that he committed "war crimes" due his part in IDF Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, last January.
The court sided with arguments submitted by the British Foreign Ministry, which stated that the defense minister was a state guest, and therefore was not subject to such lawsuit.
Earlier, it was reported that the court postponed the hearing to an unspecified date, but proceedings began less than two hours later.
In the first case of its kind since the publication of the Goldstone Report, a group of Palestinians had appealed to the court seeking Barak’s arrest.
Despite the petition, Barak decided not to change his plans for his UK visit, with his bureau releasing a statement saying: "No arrest warrant has been issued, and in any event, he has immunity due to his being a minister in the government."
During the proceedings, the Palestinians were represented by two London law firms – Irvine Thanvi and Natas (ITN) and Imran Khan and Partners – which on their behalf applied for an international arrest warrant, claiming that Barak committed war crimes and breaches of the Geneva Convention during the winter Gaza operation.
The British Foreign Ministry had earlier issued a response confirming the proceedings, but refused to take a stance on the matter.
"We can confirm that Ehud Barak is in the UK. He is scheduled to meet the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister for discussions on the Middle East peace process, Gaza and Iran," a Foreign Office spokesperson said. "We are aware that Westminster Magistrates’ Court have received an application for a warrant for the arrest of Ehud Barak but we cannot comment on live legal issues."
Barak is currently in the UK and is set to address a Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) reception during the Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton, on the south coast of England, on Tuesday night.
The legal request was filed after 16 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip instructed Al-Mezan, a Gaza-based human rights
Prior to the hearing, a spokesman for ITN told The Jerusalem Post that an arrest warrant had been lodged and that the biggest hurdle would be Barak’s diplomatic immunity, but added that he was confident that they had a strong legal argument which would override the issue of immunity.
He said that should the court not decide whether to issue the warrant, then his firm would appeal for an injunction to stop Barak from leaving the country.
A loophole in British law – in the International Criminal Court Act 2001 and the Criminal Justice Act 1988 – allows private individual complaints of "war crimes" to be lodged against military personnel, even if they are not British citizens and the alleged crimes were committed elsewhere.
Pro-Palestinian groups in Britain and other countries have been trying to exploit the loophole against IDF officers and Israeli leaders. Israel is working with the British government to change the law.
Barak met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Tuesday and is set to meet with Foreign Minister David Miliband on Wednesday to discuss the growing threat from Iran.
In a meeting with his British counterpart Bob Ainsworth, Barak said that harsh sanctions must be imposed on Iran, and that Israel is not taking any option "off the table" with regards to halting Teheran’s nuclear program.
In a meeting in Brighton, Barak also told Ainsworth that the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead must be rejected, because it encourages terrorism.