* Minister blames rights groups for arrest risk
* Rights groups say Israel has itself to blame
By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM, Oct 6 (Reuters) - A senior Israeli cabinet minister on Tuesday blamed local human rights groups for hindering travel abroad by some leading officials concerned that they might faces war crimes charges.
Moshe Yaalon, one of four deputies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said he specifically would not travel to England for fear of prosecution over war crimes allegations made by human rights and pro-Palestinian groups.
"As a former officer ... I cannot travel because of a campaign that has been initiated here by (rights groups) who were not happy with my performance," Yaalon told Israel Radio.
"There is one place in the world to which I don’t travel at the moment and that is England, unless it’s an official visit because on an official visit I am supposed to have immunity." Yaalon was summoned by Netanyahu in August for calling anti-settler group Peace Now a "virus".
Last week pro-Palestinian groups failed to persuade a London court to issue an arrest warrant against Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak, whom they accused of war crimes in his conduct of Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip this year.
Barak attended the British Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton and met Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The London magistrates court said Barak had diplomatic immunity.
Other senior Israeli officials and officers, active and retired, also avoid certain destinations for fear of arrest. Some European states allow for private war crimes lawsuits.
Spain said earlier this year it would change its law after protests from Israel over a court decision to launch a war crimes probe into seven Israelis, including Yaalon and former defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, for a 2002 attack in the Gaza Strip that killed 14 civilians and a Hamas leader.
Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, said the problem was of Israel’s own making.
"Israel has only itself to blame for possible legal proceedings that might be taken against leading politicians and officers abroad, because of its lack of internal investigations into wrong-doing by its security forces," Michaeli said.
"The first line of defence against external prosecutions is independent, credible internal investigations conducted outside of the army," she added.
Israel refused cooperation with a United Nations inquiry into alleged Gaza war crimes led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, whose report criticised the Israeli army and Palestinian militants.
In 2005, General Doron Almog, former head of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, was warned by Israeli diplomats not to leave an El Al aircraft that landed in London after a tip-off that British police were about to arrest him on war crimes charges. A British Muslim group had obtained an arrest warrant on charges that he breached the Fourth Geneva Convention in the demolition of Palestinian homes in 2002 which Israel said provided cover for gunmen. Almog stayed on the plane and flew back to Israel.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)