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Israel Promises Troops Legal Backing Over Gaza War

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- International calls to investigate Israel over alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip prompted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to promise military personnel state protection from foreign prosecution.

"The commanders and soldiers sent to Gaza should know they are safe from various tribunals and Israel will assist them on this front and defend them, just as they protected us with their bodies during the Gaza operation," Olmert said.

Last week, the military censor ordered local and foreign media in Israel to blur the faces of army commanders in photos and video footage of the Gaza war for fear they could be identified and arrested while traveling abroad.

Israeli media reports said the military had been advising its top brass to think twice about visiting Europe.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, Olmert said Israel's justice minister would consult with the country's top legal experts and find "answers to possible questions relating to the Israeli military's activities" during the 22-day war.

Some 1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians, were killed, medical officials said, in the offensive Israel launched in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks.

The civilian deaths sparked public outcry abroad and prompted senior UN officials to demand independent investigations into whether Israel committed war crimes.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians, hit by rocket salvos, were killed in the conflict.

Israel said hundreds of militants were among the Palestinian dead and that it tried its best to avoid civilian casualties in densely populated areas where gunmen operated.

White Phosphorous

Rights group Amnesty International has said that Israel's use of white phosphorus munitions -- which can cause extreme burns -- in built-up areas of the Gaza Strip was indiscriminate and therefore constituted a war crime.

Israel has said it used all weapons in Gaza within the limits of international law. Its military, however, has opened an investigation into white-phosphorous use during the conflict.

Palestinians have long demanded international prosecution of Israel's military crackdowns. Yet legal frameworks are problematic.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has no jurisdiction to investigate in the Gaza Strip, as it is not a state. Though the Palestinian Authority has been functioning as an interim sovereign polity since 1993, it was forced out of Gaza last year by Hamas after the Islamists won an election.

And while Israel has not signed the Rome Statute that enshrined the ICC, it can still be investigated, but that would require a UN Security Council mandate. Any such proposal would probably be vetoed by Israel's ally, the United States.

Some European states allow for war crimes lawsuits to be filed privately against members of Israel's security services.

In 2005, reserve Major General Doron Almog, the former head of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, was warned by Israeli diplomats not to leave an El Al aircraft that landed in London after a tip-off that British police were about to arrest him on war crimes charges.

A British Muslim group had won an arrest warrant alleging he breached the Fourth Geneva Convention in the demolition of Palestinian homes in 2002 in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel said the dwellings provided gave cover to gunmen.

Almog stayed on the plane and flew back to Israel.