Israel vows to defend soldiers against calls for war crimes inquiries

Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert on Sunday defended his country’s 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip and pledged to defend the military against international calls for an investigation of potential war crimes.

“The soldiers and commanders who were sent on missions in Gaza must know that they are safe from various tribunals and that the state of Israel will assist them on this issue and defend them,” Olmert said before his weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

Condemning what he called the “moral acrobatics” of critics he alleged are “trying to turn the attacker into the attacked and vice versa,” Olmert said a specialized government team, headed by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, would coordinate a legal defense if necessary.


Global activists and some governments have called for an inquiry into charges that Israeli soldiers employed disproportionate force and used white phosphorus munitions in dense residential areas.

Human rights group Amnesty International has called Israel’s use of white phosphorus “indiscriminate” and a war crime.

Israeli officials have insisted that their soldiers tried to avoid civilian casualties, and accuse Hamas fighters of cynically using Palestinian civilians as human shields while firing rockets at Israeli communities.

“I do not know of any military that is more moral, fair and sensitive to civilians’ lives,” Olmert said Sunday.

The Israeli military launched its assault Dec. 27 with the stated goal of ending years of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants against a widening swath of southern Israel. Nearly 1,300 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, and about 5,000 wounded; material and economic damage is estimated at nearly $2 billion. Thirteen Israelis died over the course of the conflict, three civilians from rocket attacks and 10 soldiers.

In Gaza, daily signs of an attempt to return to comparative normality continued to appear. Garbage trucks were seen on the streets for the first time Saturday night.

More than 4,000 schoolchildren returned to classes Saturday in both public schools and those run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. But administrators said they wouldn’t resume normal studies right away, instead focusing on trauma and grief counseling and what one Ministry of Education official called “morale-boosting activities.”

The unilateral cease-fires declared a week ago by Israel and the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, appeared to be holding. But anxiety still runs high among Palestinians in Gaza that the attacks could resume at any time.

Panic swept through the southern border town of Rafah on Sunday amid rumors that Israel would begin bombing the hundreds of smuggling tunnels that extend into Egypt. Many tunnel workers and residents fled the area amid increased Israeli air force flyovers and rumors that an attack was impending. Hamas police closed the Rafah border crossing with Egypt around 4 p.m.

Many of the rumors spoke of a warning phone call to the Red Cross from the Israeli military, a claim denied Sunday by a Red Cross official in Gaza.

The Rafah tunnels became a vital conduit for smuggled goods when Israel and Egypt largely sealed the territory in a blockade after Hamas took control in the summer of 2007. Hamas encouraged the tunnel trade, describing it as a legitimate lifeline in the face of an economic siege, but Israeli officials allege that smuggled weapons and rockets from Iran also pass through.

During the offensive, Israeli warplanes repeatedly pounded the tunnels, destroying or damaging many. Immediately after Israel began its cease-fire on Jan. 18, smugglers began working to repair tunnels and move goods through those routes that were undamaged.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has declared that her nation reserves the right to bomb the area if it suspects arms smuggling has resumed.

Representatives from Hamas, its rival Fatah and other Palestinian factions continue to gather in Cairo for Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks. The meetings will also focus on maintaining and extending the current cease-fire. Hamas officials have said that they were open to a longer-term truce with Israel, provided it included an end to the blockade and a full reopening of Gaza’s borders.

President Obama’s newly appointed Mideast envoy was scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem this week for his first official visit, Reuters and Bloomberg news services reported.

Former Sen. George J. Mitchell will seek to breathe new life into U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Talks toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state have shown no apparent process over the last year despite a concerted last-minute push by the Bush administration.


Special correspondent Mohammed Jamal in Rafah contributed to this report.