- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

JERUSALEM | Special legal teams will defend Israeli soldiers against potential war crimes charges stemming from civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip, the prime minister said Sunday, promising that the country would “fully back” those who fought in the three-week offensive.

The move reflected growing concerns by Israel that officers could be subject to international prosecution, despite the army’s claims that Hamas militants caused the civilian casualties by staging attacks from residential areas.

“The state of Israel will fully back those who acted on its behalf,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. “The soldiers and commanders who were sent on missions in Gaza must know that they are safe from various tribunals.”

Speaking at the weekly meeting of his Cabinet, Mr. Olmert said Israel’s justice minister would lead a team of senior officials to coordinate the legal defense of anyone involved in the offensive.

Israel launched its 22-day offensive to try to halt Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel. The assault killed 1,285 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, according to a count by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were also killed during the fighting, Israel said.

At talks Sunday in Cairo aimed at solidifying the truce, Hamas official Ayman Taha said the Islamic group offered a one-year truce to Israel, including the reopening of border crossings to allow vital supplies into Gaza. He said Israel offered an 18-month truce, which Hamas rejected. Israeli officials refused to comment.

A low-level delegation from Hamas’ rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank-based government, was also in Cairo for talks but was not expected to meet with the Hamas envoys.

Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and do not talk to each other, relying instead on Egyptian mediation.

In addition to the civilian death toll, Israel has faced international criticism for its use of white phosphorous and for shelling attacks that struck United Nations schools and installations that were serving as shelters.

Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups have said they are seeking to build a case that Israel violated the laws of war. The groups are focusing on suspicions that Israel used disproportionate force and failed to protect civilians. They also have criticized Hamas for using civilians as human shields and firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel.

Israeli officials have said they took great efforts to avoid civilian casualties and accused Hamas of deliberately using mosques, schools and residential neighborhoods for cover.

Mr. Olmert angrily accused the “international legal arena” of “moral acrobatics” by ignoring years of Palestinian rocket salvos aimed at Israeli civilians.

“The state of Israel did everything in order to avoid hitting civilians. I do not know of any military that is more moral, fair and sensitive to civilians’ lives,” Mr. Olmert said.

In another precaution, Israel’s military censor already has barred publication of the names or pictures of battlefield officers from the offensive.

Israeli leaders have faced similar concerns in the past. In 2001, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was sued in Belgium over his purported role in a 1982 massacre in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was never convicted.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide