Revealed: Israeli Intelligence Operations Targeting ICC Officials

ICC Prosecutor Faces Israeli Threats and Espionage in War Crimes Probe

by Faruk Imamovic
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Revealed: Israeli Intelligence Operations Targeting ICC Officials
© Getty Images/Michael M. Santiago

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has often found itself at the center of geopolitical storms, but recent revelations have cast a particularly harsh light on its struggles. A comprehensive investigation by The Guardian, alongside Israeli publications +972 and Local Call, has exposed a nearly decade-long secret campaign by Israel to sabotage the ICC's efforts. This campaign involved sophisticated surveillance, hacking, and intimidation of ICC officials, aiming to protect Israeli leaders from war crimes charges. As the details of this covert "war" come to light, they paint a picture of a relentless effort to derail international justice and shield those in power from accountability.

Israel’s Secret “War” Against the ICC

In an elaborate campaign spanning nearly a decade, Israel has reportedly deployed its intelligence agencies to surveil, hack, pressure, and even threaten ICC staff, including Khan and his predecessor, Fatou Bensouda. This clandestine operation aimed to derail the court’s inquiries into alleged war crimes committed by Israeli and Hamas leaders. Israeli intelligence intercepted phone calls, messages, emails, and documents from numerous ICC officials, providing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with advance knowledge of the prosecutor’s intentions. One intercepted communication suggested that Khan faced “tremendous pressure from the United States” regarding the issuance of arrest warrants against Israelis.

Bensouda, who initiated the ICC’s investigation in 2021, also found herself under surveillance and allegedly threatened. Netanyahu, described as “obsessed” with the case, oversaw these operations through his national security advisers, involving the Shin Bet, Aman, and Unit 8200. Intelligence gathered from these intercepts was disseminated to various government ministries.

Covert Operations and Allegations

One particularly striking covert operation, revealed by The Guardian, involved Yossi Cohen, the then-director of Mossad and a close ally of Netanyahu. Cohen reportedly enlisted the help of Joseph Kabila, then-president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to further Israel’s efforts against Bensouda. This operation is a part of the broader nine-year campaign uncovered by The Guardian, +972 Magazine, and Local Call. The investigation, based on interviews with over two dozen current and former Israeli intelligence officers, ICC figures, diplomats, and lawyers, paints a detailed picture of Israel’s extensive efforts to obstruct the ICC’s work.

Yossi Cohen
Yossi Cohen© X/Truthtellerftm
 

An ICC spokesperson acknowledged the court's awareness of intelligence-gathering activities by national agencies hostile to its operations. However, they assured that none of these attacks had compromised the court’s core evidence holdings. Meanwhile, Israel’s prime minister’s office dismissed the allegations as “false and unfounded.”

The ICC’s Role and Recent Developments

Since its establishment in 2002, the ICC has served as a court of last resort for prosecuting individuals accused of egregious crimes. The court has charged high-profile figures such as Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir, Libya’s late leader Muammar Gaddafi, and Russia’s current president Vladimir Putin. Khan’s recent move to seek warrants against Netanyahu, Israel’s defense minister Yoav Gallant, and Hamas leaders marks a significant development, being the first time an ICC prosecutor has targeted the leader of a close western ally.

The allegations against Netanyahu and Gallant stem from Israel’s eight-month war in Gaza, which has resulted in over 35,000 deaths according to Gaza’s health authority. This ICC case has been years in the making, progressing amid growing concerns among Israeli officials about potential arrest warrants that could prevent them from traveling to the court’s 124 member states.

Prelude to the Investigation: Bensouda’s Struggles

For Fatou Bensouda, a distinguished Gambian lawyer and former ICC chief prosecutor, the accession of Palestine to the court in 2015 posed a significant challenge. This accession, following Palestine’s recognition as a state by the UN General Assembly, meant that alleged war crimes committed in Palestinian territories fell under the ICC’s jurisdiction. Within weeks of Palestine joining, Bensouda initiated a preliminary examination into the “situation in Palestine,” marking the beginning of a long and contentious inquiry.

Fatou Bensouda
Fatou Bensouda© Getty Images/Vittorio Zunino Celotto
 

Pressure Tactics and Espionage

The Israeli response to Palestine’s ICC membership was swift and aggressive. Israel’s prime minister’s national security council (NSC) mobilized its intelligence agencies, with Netanyahu and other top officials taking a personal interest in the outcome. Multiple Israeli sources revealed that the leadership of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) wanted military intelligence involved to protect senior officers from potential charges. The surveillance of ICC officials and their communications with Palestinians was extensive, with Israeli intelligence intercepting phone calls without installing spyware on devices.

Israel’s intelligence efforts were far-reaching, capturing calls and emails, and even hacking into the communications of Palestinian NGOs submitting information to the ICC. Such surveillance was deemed crucial to anticipate and counteract potential prosecutions, often involving sensitive information about specific allegations and testimonies.

Back-Channel Diplomacy

In addition to surveillance, Israel engaged in secret back-channel meetings with the ICC to challenge the court’s jurisdiction over Palestinian territories. These meetings, authorized by Netanyahu, involved top government lawyers and diplomats who traveled to The Hague to present Israel’s legal arguments. Israeli officials were furnished with intelligence from surveillance intercepts to bolster their case.

These meetings, however, ended in December 2019 when Bensouda announced her belief in a “reasonable basis” to conclude that war crimes had been committed by both Israeli and Palestinian groups. Although this was a setback for Israel, Bensouda's decision to seek the ICC judges’ ruling on the court’s jurisdiction provided a temporary reprieve, delaying a full investigation.

Intimidation and Smear Campaigns

As the pre-trial chamber deliberated, Mossad director Yossi Cohen intensified efforts to dissuade Bensouda from proceeding with the investigation. Cohen’s interactions with Bensouda, which began years earlier, grew increasingly aggressive, with sources describing his behavior as threatening. Cohen’s tactics included surprise appearances, unannounced visits, and unwanted calls, aimed at intimidating the prosecutor.

Israel also allegedly launched a smear campaign against Bensouda, using materials obtained through a sting operation targeting her husband. Although this campaign did not gain traction among diplomats, it illustrated the lengths to which Israel was willing to go to discredit the ICC’s chief prosecutor.

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