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Fighting in Gaza over, a battle over what happened

The graves are dug, the wounded tended, but the battle over what happened in the Gaza Strip during Israel’s 22-day offensive remains unfinished.

International organizations, citing videos and witnesses, say Israel may have committed war crimes in Gaza’s villages and city alleys. The Israel Defense Forces deny such allegations, issuing their own video clips and assessments.

Ninety-four percent of Israelis supported the campaign to stop Hamas from its long- standing practice of indiscriminately firing hundreds of rockets a week into southern Israel. Human rights organizations say the Palestinian militant group’s targeting of towns such as Sderot and Ashkelon also constitutes war crimes, as does the practice by Hamas leaders, regarded by the West and a number of Arab countries as terrorists, of using civilians as human shields.

The legal implications of the deaths of at least 1,300 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, will be debated, with much of the wrangling likely to concern such issues as proportionality, targeting and how careful efforts to not harm the innocent can go horribly wrong when tank shells stray from their coordinates.

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Moral questions also linger among Israeli peace activists troubled by the relative lack of public introspection over the destruction and civilian deaths wrought by their army’s immense firepower during the fighting in the cramped territory. They say Hamas’ abuses do not erase Israel’s responsibility for such incidents as the shelling of a United Nations school that killed dozens of civilians sheltered there. Even if Hamas had to be weakened, they wonder how their nation, where memories of the Holocaust are so thoroughly embedded, could look past the plight of 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in a dense war zone they couldn’t escape.

“We are witnessing a moral corrosion that is destroying everything at a fantastic pace,” said Michael Sfard, a lawyer with Volunteers for Human Rights in Tel Aviv. “We’ve reached a threshold of insensitivity that we had never reached in the past.”

The offensive “on Gaza may be squeezing Hamas, but it is destroying Israel,” Ari Shavit wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz in the days before the operation ended. “Destroying its soul and its image. Destroying it on world television screens, in the living rooms of the international community and most importantly, in Obama’s America.”

“Wars must be just and proportional,” he continued. “Without being just, Israel cannot triumph on the battlefield.”

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Hamas’ incessant rocket attacks and its decision to not renew a six-month cease-fire in early December, after Israel did not end its 18-month blockade of Gaza, allowed Israel to dwell less on second-guessing the consequences of the military operation.

Even as its troops withdrew this week, Israel echoed with resolve over what was hailed as a just mission in an endless conflict punctuated by air raid sirens and suicide bombers. This is a nation, after all, that has faced the rise of Hamas, the 2006 war with the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon and bellicose rhetoric from an Iran accused of pursuing nuclear weapons.

Twenty-eight Israelis have been killed in rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza since 2001, Israeli officials say.

Suggestions that Israeli forces may have committed human rights violations have led to new government restrictions on soldiers. To prevent military officers from being named in potential war crimes or human rights lawsuits, the government will allow officers to be interviewed on TV only if their names are withheld and their faces blurred.

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“The government will stand like a fortified wall to protect each and every one of you from allegations of disrupting the moral [equation],” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly told his military officers and commanders. “If such a disruption exists, it is actually what is being directed against us: For seven years the world was against rocket fire on Israel, but didn’t lift a finger.”

More than previous Middle East military campaigns, and the round-the-clock public relations efforts, this battle was accentuated by technology. Palestinians with cellphone cameras documented bomb blasts and surrender flags; Israel Defense Forces soldiers were ordered to film firefights as evidence to later rebut any war crimes charges.

“I think the feeling of many Israelis is that Gaza’s behind a wall and it’s not my responsibility,” said Haim Yacobi, co-founder of Planners for Planning Rights, a group of engineers and architects promoting human rights. “It’s the politics of fear. Israeli politicians are using it as a very effective mechanism. It has to do with the dehumanization of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Israel, however, found itself on the public relations defensive, based on sheer numbers if nothing else. Whereas at least 1,300 Palestinians were reported killed, including 410 children and more than 100 women, Israel said 13 of its citizens died, 10 of them soldiers.

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Human Rights Watch and other groups allege that Israel’s tactics for achieving a military advantage in Gaza led to disproportionate death and suffering of a civilian population that was denied medical care, refuge and electricity, especially in the urban warfare in and around Gaza City.

“Gaza became a kind of free fire zone for the Israelis,” said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The Israeli army saw a different picture: Guerrillas vanishing into tunnels, popping up for ambushes, then slipping into civilian populations and firing rockets that were edging closer to Tel Aviv. It was as if Hamas had used Gaza as a dense, sprawling human shield to hide its militants, including its leaders, who Israeli officials said used a bunker beneath a hospital as their headquarters. With such a panorama, Israeli officials say, civilian casualties were not intentional, but they were unavoidable.

Shortly after announcing the cease-fire Saturday, Olmert said Israel regretted “the loss of civilian life among the citizens of Gaza who were not involved in terror and served as hostages for the murders of Hamas. We did not fight against them; we did not wish to harm them or their children or their parents or their siblings.”

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Yet moral and legal questions surround the Jan. 6 Israeli shelling of a school run by the United Nations Relief Works Agency in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinians had sought shelter there. The Israeli military says it encountered mortar rounds coming from the school and returned fire. The U.N. said that 42 civilians died and that no militants fired from the compound.

John Ging, the senior U.N. official in Gaza, who has called for an independent inquiry on possible war crimes, said Israel’s claims are “unfounded and unsubstantiated. . . . That’s been the position with all these cases. They just throw this excuse out there.”

Human rights groups have asked the Israeli attorney general’s office to investigate military actions that allegedly included the shooting of ambulance workers, the blocking of humanitarian aid and the targeting of civilian houses and government buildings. The Israeli military is looking into whether its forces properly used phosphorus artillery shells. The weapons, which cause severe burns, are not illegal but they are banned from use in heavily populated areas.

While the legal issues are parsed, Israeli intellectuals are engaged in stinging word battles. Novelist A.B. Yehoshua and prominent liberal journalist Gideon Levy have penned open letters to each other.

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“We are not bent on killing Palestinian children to avenge the killing of our children,” Yehoshua wrote in Haaretz. “All we are trying to do is get their leaders to stop this senseless and wicked aggression.”

Two days later, Levy responded to Yehoshua, saying the novelist had “fallen prey to the wretched wave that has inundated, stupefied, blinded and brainwashed us. You’re actually justifying the most brutal war Israel has ever fought. . . . Outcomes, not intentions, are what count -- and those have been horrendous.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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