January 26, 2009
JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel will grant legal protection for soldiers who fought in the three-week war in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday amid accusations of war crimes.
"The commanders and soldiers sent to Gaza need to know that they are completely safe from different tribunals and Israel will help and protect them," he said.
Olmert confirmed he had appointed Justice Minister Daniel Friedman to chair an inter-ministerial committee "to coordinate Israel's efforts to offer legal defence for anyone who took part in the operation.
"He will formulate questions and answers relating to the army's operations, which self-righteous people ... might use to sue officers and soldiers," the prime minister said.
Israel's military censor has already banned the publication of the identity of the unit leaders who fought against militants of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas on the Gaza Strip for fear they may face war crimes charges.
Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki said the Israeli government's move would unlikely halt war crimes probes.
"The decision is not going to prevent governments and human rights organisations around the world to really seek clear legal cases against all Israeli leaders who are responsible for the death and destruction of the Palestinian people," he told journalists.
"More efforts will be seen in the future" to bring cases to justice, he said, adding "there is no immunity against legal actions."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday demanded that those responsible for bombing UN buildings in the Palestinian territory should be made accountable and accused Israel of using
UN schools and the main aid headquarters where tonnes of food was stocked were bombed.
Eight Israeli human rights groups have called on the Israeli government to investigate 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.
Gaza medics put the Palestinian death toll at 1,330 with at least another 5,450 people wounded. About 65 percent of the dead were civilians, including 437 children.
Ten Israel soldiers and three civilians died during Operation Cast Lead which ended last Sunday with a ceasefire.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, has 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.