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Israel Braces for Wave of Lawsuits

Israel Braces for Wave of Lawsuits
By Mel Frykberg | IPS

RAMALLAH, Feb 17 (IPS) - Israel is bracing for a wave of lawsuits accusing the Jewish state of substantial human rights violations during its 22-day military assault on Gaza which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead and nearly 5,000 wounded, more than half of them civilian.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have confirmed that phosphorous bombs were used over Gaza. It is against international law to use phosphorous in densely crowded civilian areas.

According to Amnesty, Israel tanks also fired flechettes, 4cm long metal darts in civilian neighbourhoods. Shells containing 5,000 to 8,000 flechettes explode in the air and scatter in a conical pattern over an area about 300m wide and 100m long.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Euro- Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) also hit out at Israel.

The rights organisations had a group of monitors in the Palestinian territories for a number of days during Israel's military operation codenamed Operation Cast Lead.

"We are appalled at the horror of the war launched in the Gaza Strip, the major loss of civilian lives and the wide-scale destruction of civilian property and infrastructure in the context of the operation," they said in a joint statement.

New U.S. envoy to the UN Security Council Susan Rice has called on Israel to carry out an investigation into possible human rights abuses.

"We expect Israel will meet its international obligations to investigate, and we also call upon all members of the international community to refrain from politicising these important issues," said Rice in her debut speech to the UN Council.

Meanwhile Israel launched an appeal several weeks ago against a decision by Spanish Judge Fernando Andreu to investigate a bombing in 2002 which killed a Hamas leader in a densely populated residential suburb of Gaza city.

The Israel Air Force (AIF) dropped a one-tonne bomb on an apartment building where Salah Shehadeh lived, killing him, 14 civilians, nine of them children, and wounding 77. Eleven homes were completely destroyed and 32 damaged. Andreu said the attack by Israel might constitute a crime against humanity.

Israel's former chief of staff Dan Halutz, national infrastructures minister in the outgoing government Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and six other current or former Israeli officials are being investigated in the lawsuit in the Spanish court filed by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).

This is not the first time that Israel is being investigated for possible war crimes by courts abroad. The issue of universal jurisdiction came to the fore two years ago when a British judge issued a writ against Major-General Doron Almog over the destruction of 30 civilian houses in Rafah in the south of Gaza.

A warrant was issued for Almog's arrest. On being informed of the warrant on a visit to the UK in 2005, Almog refused to disembark from a plane at Heathrow airport, and returned immediately to Israel.

Israeli law also allows Israel to prosecute crimes committed outside of its borders. But these apply only to crimes committed against Israelis citizens or Jews.

It is not just the international repercussions of Operation Cast Lead and of previous military incursions into Gaza that are causing concern to the Israeli government. The government has voiced concern over a number of lawsuits it believes will be brought by pro-Palestinian organisations abroad and regionally, but it is also worried about home-grown Israeli leftists.

A group of Israeli activists has drawn up a list of nine battalion commanders from the Golani and Paratroops brigades and the armoured corps that the activists see as guilty of war crimes.

Defence officials fear that overseas organisations could use this list to compile far more comprehensive lists, and include junior officers and pilots.

In a bid to clamp down on identification of Israeli military personnel involved in the shelling of Palestinian civilians and property, Israel's military censors ordered foreign and Israeli journalists to delete the names and faces of Israel Defence Forces (IDF) members from their stories and photos of the Gaza operation.

In a further development, seven local human rights organisation have accused the IDF of mistreating hundreds of Gazans who were abducted from their homes during Cast Lead and taken to Israel for interrogation.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B'Tselem and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, amongst others, sent a letter to IDF Military Advocate-General Avihai Mandelblit and Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz seeking an investigation into the IDF's treatment of the detained Palestinians.

According to the testimonies of those detained, minors and adults were held in ditches dug in dirt for hours, sometimes days, exposing the detainees to the elements while handcuffed and blindfolded. They were also deprived of food and water.

Even after the detainees were taken out of the ditches, the letter argued, they were held inside trucks for an entire night, handcuffed, with one blanket for every two people. They were subjected to repeated violence and humiliation by Israeli soldiers.

The rights groups went on to argue that after the detainees were transferred to a military detention facility, they were denied bathroom facilities.

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