Israel defends soldiers amid criticism

The Baltimore Sun

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -

Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert defended yesterday 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, in comments released by the government.

Condemning the "moral acrobatics" of critics who 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 any necessary legal defense.

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

Amnesty International has called Israel's use of white phosphorus "indiscriminate" and a war crime.

Israeli officials have insisted that their soldiers went out of their way to avoid civilian casualties and accuse Hamas fighters of 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 yesterday.

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

In Gaza, daily signs of a return to comparative normality continued to appear. Garbage trucks appeared on the streets Saturday night for the first time since the cease-fires.

More than 4,000 schoolchildren returned to classes Saturday in both public schools and those run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The mutual but 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 Gazans that the attacks could resume at any time.

Panic swept through the southern border town of Rafah yesterday amid rumors that Israel would begin bombing the hundreds of smuggling tunnels that extend into Egypt. Hamas police closed the Rafah border crossing with Egypt about 4 p.m.

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

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

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

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

President Barack Obama's newly appointed U.S. envoy to the Middle East was scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem this week for his first official visit, the Reuters and Bloomberg news services reported.

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

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