Israel Hires Minister to Fight War Crimes Claims

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has put the justice minister in charge of defending Tel Aviv against charges of war crimes it committed during its 22-day Gaza assault on Friday after a U.N. human rights expert said military operations in the strip raised "the specter of systematic war crimes" and needed to be investigated.

As Amnesty International said it was "undeniable" that Israel had used white phosphorous munitions on civilians, Israel appointed Daniel Friedman to lead an inter-ministerial team to coordinate a legal defense for civilians and the military, a government source said.

Israel’s military censor has already banned the publication of the identity of the unit leaders who fought during the deadly blitz for fear they may face war crimes charges.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, said he had little doubt about the "unavoidably inhuman character of a large scale military operation of the sort that Israel has initiated… against an essentially defenseless population."

Falk told journalists that Israeli military operations in the densely populated territory among a population weakened by an 18 month blockade "raises the specter of systematic war crimes."

"Unlawful targets have been selected" during the fighting, he said.

"The evidence of breaking of fundamental rules of international humanitarian law is so compelling," he added, backing calls for an independent, international investigation.

Falk, a legal expert, insisted that the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip was effectively trapped in a war zone and prevented from fleeing, even if they were ill, wounded, or children.

More than 1,330 Palestinians were killed and 5,450 wounded while ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians died during Operation Cast Lead which ended last Sunday with a ceasefire.
In the aftermath of Israel’s deadliest assault on the strip to date rights groups like Amnesty International said it was "undeniable" that Israel had used white phosphorus in crowded civilian areas, contrary to international law, charging that this amounted to a war crime.

Eight Israeli human rights groups have called on the Israeli government to investigate given the scale of the casualties, describing the number of dead women and children as "terrifying."

Palestinian Justice Minister Ali Kashan, meanwhile, was on Thursday in The Hague, where he held talks with International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, an official said.

Beatrice le Fraper, a special advisor to the prosecutor, told AFP that Kasham and Moreno-Ocampo had "a long discussion … which included allegations of crimes committed in Gaza."

( and Agencies)

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