Israel readies for fight against war-crimes charges

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has put the justice minister in charge of defending Israel against charges of war crimes during its 22-day Gaza assault, a government source said on Friday.

Daniel Friedman will lead an inter-ministerial team to coordinate a legal defence for civilians and the military, the source said.

And Defence Minister Ehud Barak was also due to ask the government to approve on Sunday a Bill “offering moral and legal backing to army officers and soldiers following Operation Cast Lead”, his ministry said.

“The Israeli government bore responsibility for sending the Israel Defence Force commanders and soldiers to protect its citizens and therefore it is obliged to offer full backing to prevent any harm they might be exposed to in view of their involvement,” the statement said.

Israel’s military censor has already banned the publication of the identity of the unit leaders who fought against Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip for fear they might face war-crimes charges.

On Tuesday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon demanded that those responsible for bombing UN buildings in the Palestinian territory should be made accountable and accused Israel of using excessive force.

Amnesty International said it was “undeniable” that Israel had used white phosphorus in crowded civilian areas, contrary to international law, charging that this amounted to a war crime.

Eight Israeli human rights groups have called on the Israeli government to investigate given the scale of the casualties, describing the number of dead women and children as “terrifying”.

Israel insists troops did their best to limit civilian casualties in a heavily populated area and blamed Hamas for hiding behind civilians to fire rockets at southern Israel.

Palestinian Justice Minister Ali Kashan, meanwhile, was in The Hague on Thursday, where he held talks with International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, an official said.

Beatrice le Fraper, a special adviser to the prosecutor, said Kasham and Moreno-Ocampo had “a long discussion ... which included allegations of crimes committed in Gaza”.

Gaza medics put the death toll at 1 330 with at least 5 450 wounded. About 65% of the dead were civilians, including 400 children and 100 women.

Ten Israel soldiers and three civilians died during Operation Cast Lead, which ended last Sunday with a ceasefire.

UN schools and the main aid headquarters where tonnes of food was stocked were bombed.—AFP

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