Israeli leaders worked at home and abroad yesterday to reinforce a fragile cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and respond to international criticism of civilian casualties inflicted by Israel's 22-day offensive against Hamas militants who control the Palestinian enclave.
Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, met in Brussels, Belgium, with European leaders about preventing arms smuggling into Gaza, and military officials in Tel Aviv said they were investigating complaints that Israeli forces ignored international restrictions on the use of phosphorus weapons during their attacks in Gaza.
As Israel completed a rapid troop pullout yesterday morning, the World Health Organization released a report estimating that 1,300 Palestinians were killed during the fighting, including 410 children and 104 women. About 5,300 Palestinians were injured, half of them women and children, the report said.
At least 13 Israelis died, including three civilians and four military personnel killed by friendly fire.
In addition to allegations of indiscriminate violence, critics accuse Israel of violating international law restricting the use of phosphorus arms, which can inflict horrific burns. Phosphorus artillery shells and similar weapons are not illegal, but the law bars their use in densely populated areas such as Gaza City, one of the most crowded urban areas in the world.
An Israeli committee led by a colonel will investigate the allegations by human rights groups and the foreign press, officials said yesterday. The Israeli Defense Force established the committee Jan. 16, according to the statement released by the office of the IDF spokesman.
"In response to the claims ... relating to the use of phosphorus weapons, and in order to remove any ambiguity, an investigative team has been established in the Southern Command to look into the issue," the statement said. "It must be noted that international law does not prohibit the use of weaponry containing phosphorus to create smoke screens and for marking purposes. The IDF only uses weapons permitted by law."
In another repercussion of foreign condemnation of Israeli tactics, the military made an unprecedented decision yesterday to conceal the identities of field commanders who had been interviewed by the Israeli press. Military censors decided shortly before the airing and publication of the interviews that names would be withheld and faces would be blurred in television reports, according to the Israeli press.
The decision results from concerns about attempts to pursue war crimes prosecutions against Israeli officials in foreign courts. Military brass also warned officers that they may be in danger of arrest or violent reprisals if they travel abroad, according to press reports. During a visit to the Southern Command, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told soldiers that the government would protect them "like a fortified wall" against potential prosecutions, according to press reports.
Livni and 27 European counterparts discussed ways in which the European Union can contribute military forces, ships and technology to stop arms smuggling into Gaza by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. In a plan outlined last week, the United States agreed to provide detection and surveillance equipment, logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and others to monitor Gaza's land and sea borders.