JERUSALEM (Reuters) - International calls to investigate Israel over alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip prompted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday 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.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said after meeting counterparts from the European Union, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan in Brussels that Olmert’s comments should not preclude action against Israeli military figures.
“It does not mean there is an immunity against legal actions...More of such efforts will be seen also in the near future.”
Last week, the military censor ordered local and foreign media in Israel not to publish names of army commanders in the Gaza war and to blur their faces in photos and video 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 a weekly cabinet meeting, Olmert said Israel’s justice minister would consult 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 U.N. officials to demand independent investigations into whether Israel committed war crimes.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians, hit by rocket salvoes, 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.
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.
In a quick start to efforts by President Barack Obama’s new administration to shore up a shaky Gaza truce and revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, his envoy, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, is expected in Israel on Wednesday.
He plans to visit the occupied West Bank, Egypt and Jordan. A Western diplomat said Syria was not currently on his schedule.
Palestinians have lobbied for a tougher international response to Israel’s military crackdowns. Yet legal frameworks are problematic.
The International Criminal Court 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 U.N. Security Council mandate. Any such proposal would probably be vetoed by Israel’s ally, the United States.
Some European nations allow for war crimes lawsuits to be filed privately against members of Israel’s security services.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Editing by Ralph Boulton