Netanyahu, Bensouda and Yossi Cohen-1716975277238
From left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ICC’s former prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Mossad's ex-chief Yossi Cohen. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Israel has waged a nearly decade-long campaign against the International Criminal Court (ICC), deploying its intelligence agencies to spy on, hack and pressure and threaten its senior staff members to try to get a 2021 war crimes probe dropped, a report has said.

A joint investigative report by the Guardian and two Israeli magazines — +972 and Local Call — claimed that Yossi Cohen, former chief of Israel’s Mossad agency, threatened the ICC’s former prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in secret meetings.

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Israel “deployed its intelligence agencies to surveil, hack, pressure, smear and allegedly threaten senior ICC staff in an effort to derail the court’s inquiries,” according to the report.

This “war” against the ICC has been ongoing for nearly 10 years, it said.

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“Israeli intelligence captured the communications of numerous ICC officials, including [prosecutor] Khan and his predecessor as prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, intercepting phone calls, messages, emails and documents,” the Guardian said.

Cohen’s covert contact to pressure Bensouda happened in the years leading up to her decision to open a formal investigation into the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in occupied Palestinian territories, the report said, citing numerous anonymous sources.

Bensouda’s successor Khan on May 20 sought arrest warrants for leaders of Israel and Hamas, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over actions taken during their seven-month war.

While Netanyahu and his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, do not face imminent arrest, the announcement by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor was a symbolic blow that deepened Israel’s isolation over the war in Gaza.

Karim Khan on May 20 announced his office had “reasonable grounds” to believe that Israeli leaders bear “criminal responsibility” for “war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Image Credit: AFP

Khan accused Netanyahu, Gallant, and three Hamas leaders — Yehya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh — of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Khan at that time announced his office had “reasonable grounds” to believe that Israeli leaders bear “criminal responsibility” for “war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

A panel of three judges will decide whether to issue the arrest warrants and allow a case to proceed. The judges typically take two months to make such decisions.

Israel is not a member of the court, so even if the arrest warrants are issued, Netanyahu and Gallant do not face any immediate risk of prosecution.

But the threat of arrest could make it difficult for the Israeli leaders to travel abroad.

One individual briefed on Cohen’s activities said he had used “despicable tactics” against Bensouda as part of an ultimately unsuccessful effort to intimidate and influence her.

According to accounts shared with ICC officials, he is alleged to have told her: “You should help us and let us take care of you. You don’t want to be getting into things that could compromise your security or that of your family.”

It adds that this surveillance has been ongoing in the past several months.

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan in a file photo. Image Credit: AFP

‘Tremendous pressure by US’ on Khan

An intercepted message revealed Khan had previously wanted to issue arrest warrants against Israeli officials but was faced with “tremendous pressure” by the US, a source familiar with the message’s content said.

One intelligence source said that Netanyahu has taken a close interest in the covert campaign against the ICC, describing him as “obsessed.”

Five sources familiar with Israeli intelligence activity said phone calls made by Bensouda with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip were routinely monitored. Bensouda had been looking into Israeli crimes against humanity in the occupied West Bank.

“If Fatou Bensouda spoke to any person in the West Bank or Gaza, then that phone call would enter [intercept] systems,” the source said, adding that intelligence operatives were able to extract information from the prosecutor without targeting her mobile device with spyware.

The Guardian revealed on Tuesday that Bensouda was also subject to a years-long Israeli intimidation campaign, during which she was threatened by Cohen.

60 people under surveillance

“A large whiteboard in an Israeli intelligence department contained the names of about 60 people under surveillance – half of them Palestinians and half from other countries, including UN officials and ICC personnel,” the joint investigation adds, citing another Israeli source.

Israeli operatives also hacked into the emails of the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq, which was communicating with the office of the former ICC prosecutor and has itself been subject to a years-long campaign of violence, repression, and censorship by Israel.

An ICC spokesman told the Guardian that it was aware of “proactive intelligence-gathering activities being undertaken by a number of national agencies hostile towards the court” but that “none of the recent attacks against it by national intelligence agencies” had managed to infiltrate the court’s evidence holdings.

The Israeli prime minister’s office denied the campaign and said the allegations were designed to “hurt the state of Israel.”