- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

TEL AVIV | Babies crying next to bodies of their mothers. Children hit inside a school.

These and other harrowing images are ammunition in a war for public opinion that could undermine Israel’s goals to diminish the Hamas movement’s hold over Gaza, an enclave that Israel attacked Dec. 27 in response to a barrage of rocket fire on Israeli towns.

The charges have inflamed public opinion across the Arab world and Europe, where images of Palestinian suffering are broadcast heavily on television, in contrast to programming in Israel and the United States. Even in Israel, however, the mounting Palestinian toll — which topped 1,000 on Wednesday, including hundreds of civilians — is causing increasing concern. A coalition of Israeli human rights groups, including the local chapter of Amnesty International, on Wednesday called for an international investigation into whether the Israeli government had committed war crimes.

See related story:Israel strikes U.N. compound

The groups said Gaza’s medical system is in collapse, rescuers cannot reach areas under attack, and electricity and running water are in short supply.

“This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask be investigated, of the commission of war crime,” the groups said in a statement. “The responsibility of the State of Israel in this matter is clear and beyond doubt.”

Israel counters that Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June 2007, is responsible for civilian deaths because it attacked Israeli civilians first, its fighters operate in civilian areas and the militants use fellow Palestinians as human shields. So far, 13 Israelis have died, 10 of them soldiers.

“I have no doubt that Hamas is deliberately churning out atrocity propaganda for their own purposes,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “Some of these stories need to be checked out. Hamas has systemically acted to destroy civil society. People are reticent to speak out against the official message. … They’ve created a Taliban-like regime.”

In the latest charges, Human Rights Watch earlier this week accused Israel of illegally using artillery shells in urban areas that rain down burning chips of white phosphorus. White phosphorus munitions are permitted under international law to create a smoke screen against enemy forces but are not permitted for use against civilian targets; the chips can burn through the skin to the bone and set fire to property.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Tuesday that Israel had fired white phosphorus shells, but had no evidence to suggest it was being used illegally. Nevertheless, the committee urged Israel to use “extreme caution” in using the agent, the Associated Press reported.

Israeli Military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi denied using white phosphorus munitions, while Israeli military analysts said the charges are propaganda.

“Whether they are used in keeping with international law is a matter of interpretation,” said Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli brigadier general who consulted international legal experts on weapons use as head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ strategic planning division. “To judge, you need all of the operational considerations and intelligence available. Of course, they don’t have it, so [the accusers] are playing a very irresponsible role.”

The war of accusations was inevitable once Israeli leaders approved a broad offensive against Hamas. Israel and Egypt have closed all border crossings into the enclave, so Gaza’s 1.5 million residents have nowhere to run from the fighting.

The most serious incidents followed the start of Israel’s ground offensive Jan. 3.

International outrage erupted after about 40 civilians were killed in the shelling of a school operated by the United Nations in the Jabaliya refugee camp.

Israel initially said the school had been the origin for mortar fire on its forces, and that Hamas acted irresponsibly by shooting from the vicinity. Later, Israel acknowledged that its retaliatory shell was off target, according to local media reports.

“They don’t intend to injure civilians, I know that,” said Iyad Sarraj, a Gaza human rights activist and the chairman of the Gaza Mental Health Program. “But at the same time, if they have a target, and there is in the vicinity some civilians, it doesn’t matter. They have to hit the target anyway. Add to this that they are not 100 percent accurate.”

In another incident that raised an international storm, Israel was charged with blocking Red Cross rescuers from reaching a house where dozens of family members were dying after being hit by Israeli fire. When rescuers entered the building, they found children wailing next to the bodies of their mothers.

“For six days, these kids were swimming in the blood of their mothers and brothers and sisters,” said Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. “The level of killings, the level of terror inflicted, is unbelievable.”

On Wednesday, Ann M. Veneman, a former Bush administration agriculture secretary who now heads the United Nations Children’s Fund, said more than 300 children had died in the fighting. “This is tragic,” she said in a statement. “This is unacceptable.”

Aid organizations assert that three-hour daily “humanitarian pauses” by Israel to allow relief work are inadequate and that Israel has hit relief convoys by accident or design.

Israel in turn says Hamas has stored weapons in mosques, makes small missiles in clandestine factories and smuggles in longer-range missiles through tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border.

Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire at Israeli civilian centers is also illegal, human rights groups say.

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