January 23, 2009 by Gsmith
23 January 2009
Israel’s prime minister has assembled a team to defend the country against charges of war crimes in its recent offensive against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Ehud Olmert asked Israeli Justice Minister Daniel Friedman Thursday to lead an inter-ministerial team to prepare legal defenses for Israeli officials and military personnel.
Israeli Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz warned earlier this week that Israel may face a wave of international lawsuits over its 22-day offensive, which ended Sunday.
U.N. human rights expert Richard Falk said Thursday there is evidence that Israel violated humanitarian law by conducting the offensive, “against an essentially defenseless population.” He called for an independent investigation to see if Israel committed war crimes.
Israel insists its troops did their best to limit civilian casualties in heavily-populated battle zones. It also accuses Hamas militants of hiding behind Palestinian civilians and firing at Israelis from civilian and U.N. buildings.
The Israeli military has banned publication of the names of Israeli commanders who took part in the offensive for fear they could face prosecution when traveling overseas.
Falk is the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. He made his comments in a phone call to reporters in Geneva from his home in the U.S. state of California.
Falk also accused Israel of trapping Gaza’s civilian population in the war zone and preventing children, the sick and wounded from fleeing the territory.
Israel says it launched the offensive as an act of self-defense against hundreds of indiscriminate Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli communities.
Israel and Hamas both declared cease-fires Sunday, ending major combat. Thirteen-hundred Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in the violence.
Israel’s government says it will allow journalists free access to Gaza beginning Friday. Israel barred the media from entering the territory during its three-week offensive.