JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday announced the formation of a special legal team to defend Israeli soldiers against potential war crimes charges stemming from the recent three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip.
The move reflected growing concerns by Israel that officers could be subject to international prosecution for the large number of civilian deaths in Gaza, despite the army's claims that Hamas militants caused the casualties by staging attacks from residential areas.
In other developments, there was a wave of panic in Gaza, apparently set off by an Israeli Cabinet minister's threat to assassinate Hamas leaders. Hamas called for calm, insisting the cease-fire was holding and that negotiators were in Egypt trying to consolidate the truce.
Speaking at the weekly meeting of his Cabinet, Olmert said Israel's justice minister would lead a team of senior officials to coordinate the legal defense of anyone involved in the offensive.
"The state of Israel will fully back those who acted on its behalf," Olmert said. "The soldiers and commanders who were sent on missions in Gaza must know that they are safe from various tribunals."
Israel facing global criticism
Israel launched its 22-day offensive to try to halt Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel. The assault killed 1,285 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights counted. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were also killed during the fighting, Israel said.
In addition to the civilian death toll, Israel has faced international criticism for its use of white phosphorous, and for shelling attacks that struck United Nations schools and installations that were serving as shelters.
Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups have said they are seeking to build a case that Israel violated the laws of war. The groups are focusing on suspicions that Israel used disproportionate force and failed to protect civilians. They also have criticized Hamas for using civilians as human shields and firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel.
Israeli officials have said they took great efforts to avoid civilian casualties, and accused Hamas of deliberately using mosques, schools and residential neighborhoods for cover. Olmert angrily accused the "international legal arena" of "moral acrobatics" by ignoring years of Palestinian rocket salvos aimed at Israeli civilians.
"The state of Israel did everything in order to avoid hitting civilians. I do not know of any military that is more moral, fair and sensitive to civilians' lives," he said.
No names, photos
In another precaution, Israel's military censor already has barred publication of the names or pictures of battlefield officers from the offensive.
Israeli leaders have faced similar concerns in the past. In 2001, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was sued in Belgium over his alleged role in a 1982 massacre in Lebanon's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was never convicted.
In 2005, a London court issued an arrest warrant for a retired Israeli general for his role in the bulldozing of houses in a Gaza refugee camp. The general ducked arrest by staying on his plane at London's Heathrow airport and flying back to Israel. Another top official, Cabinet Minister Avi Dichter, turned down an invitation to Britain out of concern that he could be arrested for his role in the 2002 assassination of a senior Hamas militant in Gaza.
The Israeli offensive ended with a temporary cease-fire last week, and international mediators are trying to work out a longer-term arrangement.
Israel wants guarantees that Hamas will stop firing rockets and be prevented from smuggling weapons into Gaza from neighboring Egypt. Hamas wants Gaza's border crossings, closed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militants took power in 2007, to be reopened. The blockade has caused widespread economic hardship in Gaza.
Israeli officials have said they are prepared to resume the offensive if rocket attacks start up again. Israel also has demanded the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for more than two years as part of a long-term truce.
Wave of panic in Gaza
Israeli Cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz suggested that Israel would assassinate Hamas leaders if the soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, is not released.
"I want to tell the leaders of Hamas, don't misunderstand us," Mofaz said. "Until Schalit goes free, none of you will be able to walk freely on the streets of Gaza." It was not clear whether Mofaz, a former armed forces chief, was voicing official policy or giving his personal opinion.
The comments fueled a wave of panic in Gaza, with Palestinians fleeing from a dozen government buildings. Hamas officials called for calm, and midlevel officials were back on the job, distributing aid to victims whose homes were destroyed or damaged. Still, top Hamas leaders remained out of site, as they have since Israel launched the offensive last month.
A Hamas delegation was due to start talks with Egyptian officials on Sunday on means to reopen the border.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said discussions would address a detailed cease-fire agreement focused on reopening the border.
A low-level delegation from Hamas' rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank-based government, was also in Cairo for talks, but was not expected to meet with the Hamas envoys.
Palestinian rivals still at odds
Arab mediators have been trying to get the Palestinian rivals to reconcile as part of the cease-fire. The sides have been at odds since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah movement in June 2007.
Complicating the efforts, a top Hamas official said Abbas' government must end its peace talks and security coordination with Israel if it wants to reconcile. The leader, Osama Hamdan, also vowed that Hamas will continue to bring in arms to the Gaza Strip. Hamdan is Hamas' representative in Lebanon and is close to the group's supreme leader in Syria, Khaled Mashaal.
Saeb Erekat, an aide to Abbas, said reconciliation talks should resume without conditions. "The important thing is to finish the division and have a government of national unity to carry on the reconstruction of Gaza," he said.
In his Sunday's speech, Hamdan vowed that Hamas will continue to bring in arms to Gaza despite the Israeli blockade and international offers to help in preventing arms smuggling.
"Acquiring arms is our right. We will continue to bring in arms to Gaza and to the (West) Bank," he said.
Hamdan said since the cease-fire took hold last Sunday, Hamas has begun replenishing its arsenal and upgrading the weapons it has.
He also said sending warships to prevent arms smuggling to Gaza would not affect Hamas' armament.
Also Sunday, the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command said in a statement faxed to the AP in Damascus that France's participation in a maritime blockade of Gaza's coast would "make it an enemy of our people ... and make its interests, wherever they are, subject to direct targeting by our Muslim nation."
On Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered a frigate deployed immediately to the waters off Gaza in an effort to fight arms smuggling.
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