26 Jan 2009

Israel promises troops legal backing over Gaza war

4:33 pm on 26 January 2009

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised the state will protect soldiers from foreign war crimes prosecution over the three-week military campaign in Gaza.

Some 1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians, were killed, medical officials said, in the offensive Israel launched in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks.

The civilian deaths sparked public outcry abroad and prompted senior UN officials to demand independent investigations into whether Israel committed war crimes.

Israel said hundreds of militants were among the Palestinian dead and that it tried its best to avoid civilian casualties in densely populated areas where gunmen operated.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians, hit by rocket salvoes, were killed in the conflict.

Mr Olmert told a weekly cabinet meeting Israel's justice minister would consult the country's top legal experts and find "answers to possible questions relating to the Israeli military's activities" during the 22-day war.

He said Israel would protect commanders and soldiers just as they protected Israeli during the Gaza operation.

Last week, the military censor ordered local and foreign media in Israel not to publish names of army commanders in the Gaza war and to blur their faces in photos and video for fear they could be identified and arrested while travelling abroad.

Israeli media reports said the military had been advising its top brass to think twice about visiting Europe.

Rights group Amnesty International has said that Israel's use of white phosphorus munitions - which can cause extreme burns - in built-up areas of the Gaza Strip was indiscriminate and therefore constituted a war crime.

Israel has said it used all weapons in Gaza within the limits of international law. Its military, however, has opened an investigation into white phosphorous use during the conflict.