TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel reacted with fury on Monday to the request by the International Criminal Court prosecutor for arrest warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister over alleged war crimes in Gaza.

The prosecutor's office said it was also seeking arrest warrants against three Hamas leaders, including Yahya Sinwar, the Palestinian Islamist movement's chief in Gaza and one of the architects of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The announcement drew a shocked defence from Israelis outraged at the parallel drawn between the prime minister and the Hamas leadership. Even Netanyahu's political enemies rallied around him.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid described the decision as a "disaster". Benny Gantz, a centrist former army general who joined Netanyahu's wartime unity government last year but who is the leading candidate to take over as prime minister, called it a "crime of historic proportions".

In liberal Tel Aviv, which saw some of the biggest street protests in Israel's history against Netanyahu's plans to curb the powers of the judiciary last year, people expressed outrage.

"Sinwar is a terrorist leader. Putting them all three together is absolutely absurd, there's no common thread between them," said Barak Rabinowitz, a 45-year-old venture capital executive.

Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister, has seen his popularity dive since the start of the war in Gaza, with many Israelis blaming him for the security failures that allowed the Hamas rampage to occur, and accusing him of failing to do enough to bring home around 130 Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

But for some Israelis, the possibility of warrants being issued against the prime minister was seen as an attack on the whole country and symptomatic of the increasing hostility Israel has been facing internationally.

"I think it's a disgrace," said Oron Uri, a 59-year-old advertising and marketing executive in Tel Aviv. The move was not aimed simply against Netanyahu and (Defence Minister Yoav) Gallant but against the whole country. "It's against us, the Israelis," he said.

"They are coming and giving out warrants against the Israelis, not just against our government or our prime minister or our defence minister," he said.


The longer term political impact of the decision on Netanyahu, whose coalition has been rocked by deep internal splits, remains unclear but the shock of the news brought him at least a temporary reprieve from his domestic troubles.

On Saturday, Gantz had launched an explicit challenge to Netanyahu, demanding he produce a clear "day after" strategy for the campaign in Gaza, but he threw his weight behind the prime minister over the announcement from The Hague.

He said "drawing parallels between the leaders of a democratic country determined to defend itself from despicable terror to leaders of a bloodthirsty terror organisation is a deep distortion of justice and blatant moral bankruptcy."

Israel's campaign in Gaza, has so far killed more than 35,000 Palestinians and laid much of the enclave to waste, displacing most of the population, which aid groups say now faces a severe humanitarian crisis.

Protests in cities and college campuses in the United States and many other Western countries have underlined the growing global outrage over the issue and even President Joe Biden, Israel's closest ally, has become increasingly distanced from Netanyahu's government.

But in Israel, still scarred by the memory of Oct. 7 when some 1,200 people were killed by Hamas-led gunmen, who also seized some 250 hostages in the deadliest single day in the country's history, the perspective was different.

"Any attempt to draw parallels between these atrocious terrorists and a democratically elected government of Israel - working to fulfil its duty to defend and protect its citizens entirely in adherence to the principles of international law - is outrageous and cannot be accepted by anyone," President Isaac Herzog said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Ros Russell)

By Rami Amichay