After 10 years in the always-interesting, always-frustrating job of defending the legality of Israel’s actions in the war against terrorism, Irit Kohn, director of the department of international affairs in the Justice Ministry, is calling it a day.
Thursday was her last day of work, although she still has three months of vacation coming to her and is therefore still a member of the Justice Ministry staff. That is a good thing, because there is no indication in her pleasantly cluttered and busy office that she is leaving any time soon.
Kohn told The Jerusalem Post in a farewell interview that in addition to the traditional work that her department has been doing since it was established, it has had to take on new tasks as the globe has increasingly turned into a global village.
The traditional work includes handling and making extradition requests, asking foreign countries for legal assistance on behalf of police investigators, state prosecutors and defense attorneys and providing such assistance to foreign countries, involvement in matters relating to international kidnapping affairs, and dealing with the transfer of Israeli prisoners back home and of foreigners imprisoned in Israel to their homelands.
When Kohn began working for the international department, it was the smallest one in the Justice Ministry, employing only four lawyers. Today, commensurate with the increasing importance of international legal relations and cooperation, it has 12 lawyers and four articling lawyers.
Not only has the traditional work of the department grown, but it also faces new challenges, particularly regarding the growing importance of international law and the phenomenon of "universal jurisdiction," whereby countries have passed laws authorizing their courts to hear cases of war crime allegations that have nothing to do directly with the country itself.
During the current conflict, she has also found herself defending Israel’s actions against charges that it has violated international law regarding a variety of topics including Palestinian house demolitions, targeted assassinations and the separation fence.
Kohn said one of the highlights of her career was her decision to fight the indictments in Belgium against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Ministry director-general Amos Yaron for alleged war crimes committed during the massacre by Christian Phalangist gunmen of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps near Beirut in 1982.
Kohn said she realized that the decision of many countries, including Belgium, to allow their courts to hear cases in which foreign citizens accuse foreign officials of committing crimes posed a substantial danger to Israeli individuals, who might find themselves arrested, tried and imprisoned if they stepped out of the country.
Kohn persuaded Sharon not to ignore the trial. She hired Belgian lawyers to defend the prime minister and established a team to direct the fight from Israel, including representatives of the Justice Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry.
After a two-year battle, Belgium amended the universal jurisdiction law and closed the files against Sharon and Yaron.
"We succeeded because of our professionalism, the friendship among the members of the defense team and because nothing leaked out of our deliberations," said Kohn.
Kohn is also on the front lines in defense of Israeli actions in the current intifada. She said international law must be changed so as to take into account wars against terrorism. The law was written with an eye only on conventional warfare between two armies. Thus, while the law constrains Israeli military actions, there are no parallel constraints on the terrorists, she said.
Kohn also denies charges leveled by critics that Israel only knows how to use force in the war against terrorism and does not care about the hardship and casualties it inflicts on innocent Palestinians.
"The army is not happy with the actions it is forced to take," she said. "You might get the impression that Israel carries out its military operations without thinking. But that is not true. There are heated discussions between the army and the Justice Ministry, where we ask ourselves what is right and wrong and try to balance our humanitarian concerns with our responsibility to defend Israel’s citizens."
Kohn repeatedly stressed her belief that overall, the army is acting with restraint and concern and is fighting a "sacred war" to defend Israel’s civilian population. But she is an outspoken critic of the army’s policy, backed by successive attorney-generals, regarding house demolitions.
"This policy is a big mistake," she said. "It is causing us great harm and it’s a shame that it is being carried out."
According to Kohn, the demolitions are a source of enormous hatred among Palestinians towards Israel and are regarded as a more serious crime by international jurists than the IDF’s targeted assassination policy.
"The army demolished the east Jerusalem home of the mother of a teenage suicide bomber even though she condemned his actions," she said. "Why did they destroy the house? What more could they have asked of her?"
Kohn said she was also critical of the original route of the separation fence, which was one of the reasons she did not want Israel to appear before the International Court of Justice. It was not the only reason, she added. She believed the court was biased and that the question put to it by the UN was also biased. Nonetheless, she said that before the High Court ordered the army to reconsider the route, "the fence caused human suffering by splitting families, cutting children off from their schools and farmers from their lands."
"Perhaps if the route had been different, we could have defended it with more enthusiasm," said Kohn. "Maybe if the route had been different, my attitude [about appearing before the court] would also have been different."