Israel preparing for allegations it committed "war crimes" in Gaza

Israel Materials 23 January 2009 11:59 (UTC +04:00)

Israel is preparing for the possibility that Israeli political and military officials will be taken to court in foreign countries by activists accusing them of having committed war crimes in Gaza, reported dpa.

Transitional Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appointed Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann as the head of an inter-ministerial team which is to prepare for any such accusations.

"He asked the justice minister to head a commission that will deal with the legal aspect in the follow-up to the Gaza operation," a senior adviser, Mark Regev, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa Friday. He stressed however that the team would not be looking specifically only into the issue of alleged violations of international humanitarian law, but also into claims regarding property damaged during the offensive.

The team is expected to start its work next week. Olmert made the move after Israel's attorney-general made an assessment that Israel would have to deal with a slew of lawsuits over its 22-day Operation "Cast Lead" in Gaza.

Israel launched the offensive on December 27 in a bid to curb rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza by Palestinian militants.

According to the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), at least 1,285 Palestinians were killed in the three-week offensive, the highest death toll in at least four decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza puts the death toll at more than 1,400.

According to PCHR, nearly 70 per cent of the dead were civilians.

Israel says it attacked only Hamas targets in the strip and that it tried to be as "surgical as possible" when attacking those targets in the densely-populated coastal enclave.

It charges Hamas' fighters gave the Israeli military no option but to seek them out in civilian areas, because that is where they were operating from.

Foreign governments and human rights groups, however, have accused Israel of using excessive and disproportionate force and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, visiting Gaza earlier this week, called for a "full investigation" into civilian deaths.

Human rights groups have also said Israel used white phosphorus artillery shells in Gaza.

The substance is a conventional weapon used to create instant smokescreens for hiding troops.

But Amnesty International says its use is illegal in populated areas, where the highly-flammable substance - which inflicts severe burns when coming in contact with human skin - causes indiscriminate harm to civilians.

An Amnesty fact-finding team said it was also looking into reports that Israel used shells which disperse steel darts known as flechettes, and dense inert metal explosives (DIME) - a weapon in fact developed to avoid "collateral damage" by creating a blast within a very small radius, but which is so lethal and powerful that it can severe limbs.

None of the three weapons is banned under international law, but their use in built-up areas would violate laws meant to protect civilians, the rights groups say.

Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were killed in ground fighting and by Palestinian rockets during the offensive. dpa ok wjh