Israel on rack over war crimes

Israel has pledged to take steps to lower the number of civilian casualties in its future military campaigns and limit the use of controversial white phosphorus munitions.

TEL AVIV // Israel has pledged to take steps to lower the number of civilian casualties in its future military campaigns and limit the use of controversial white phosphorus munitions, following charges by United Nations investigators last year that the country had committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip.

The pledge to implement the new measures were included in a 37-page document that Israeli officials said was handed on Monday to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, and which was posted on Israel's foreign ministry website. But Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, said the report was not tailored specifically in response to the UN investigation's allegations of war crimes and "does not meet the criteria" set out by the world body.

"They just threw a document on the desk of one of the officers of the secretary general and said 'this is what we are doing internally'. That does not meet the criteria of what is required from them," Mr Mansour told The National yesterday. "They did not submit it in compliance with what is required from them, either by the Goldstone report or the General Assembly." It was the third update that Israel has so far provided on its internal military investigation into the 22-day attacks in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, in which about 1,400 Palestinians were killed - more than half of them civilians, according to human-rights groups. Much of Gaza's infrastructure destroyed or damaged.

Commentators in Gaza City lambasted the report as the latest bid by Israel to fend off the international outcry that followed its onslaught, which the country had claimed it launched in response to rocket attacks on its territory from militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza. Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al Azhar University in Gaza City, said: "This is unacceptable. Saying that it will lower the number of civilian casualties is not enough. According to the Geneva Conventions, Israel must not aim for military targets at all if they are surrounded by civilians."

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, accused Israel of responding to the war crimes charges "in a very cosmetic way." He added: "This shows that Israel is genuinely unwilling to take accountability for its actions during the attack."  A UN-mandated investigation into the onslaught, led by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, in September 2009 charged both Israel and Hamas with war crimes but focused more on Israel. The commission urged both of them to launch credible and independent probes into the accusations. The Israeli government refused to co-operate with Mr Goldstone's panel and opted - despite international criticism - to have the Israeli military carry out its own probe.

The Palestinian Authority's UN delegation has also submitted a progress report to the UN, but it was not immediately available, according to the Reuters news agency. While the western-backed Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, has pledged to comply with a UN General Assembly resolution in February calling for Israeli and Palestinian probes into the Gaza war, it has no influence on Gaza and its input is unlikely to be significant. Hamas officials have suggested they may investigate the charges in the Goldstone report, though the group has not released anything so far.

Israel's report addressed charges by rights groups that it had applied disproportionate and deliberate force in densely packed residential areas. Israel said in its report: "The Israeli military has implemented operational changes in its orders and combat doctrine designed to further minimise civilian casualties and damage to civilian property in the future."  The report added that "important new procedures" adopted to protect civilians in urban warfare include the addition of a humanitarian-affairs officer in each combat unit, who will be "advising" the commanding officer and "educating" soldiers on the shielding of civilians and on providing humanitarian assistance.

Additionally, the new steps include planning safe havens for civilians to take refuge from the fighting, locating civilian escape routes from combat areas and allowing people not involved in combat and who are in need of medical help access to humanitarian assistance during Israeli-imposed curfews or closures.  Furthermore, in an attempt to limit destruction of private property, Israel said it is imposing new orders for its troops. Those includes conducting "more advanced research" into the positions of civilian facilities such as water, food and power supplies and taking that data into consideration while planning a military mission. They also call for a more senior-level approval of the military targeting of sites that are "especially sensitive" in their significance for the civilian population.

The country also said that it will establish "permanent restrictions" on munitions containing white phosphorus, whose use in heavily populated areas during the conflict was especially controversial. White phosphorus is a highly incendiary chemical that is often used to produce a smoke screen to hide troop or tank movements in a battlefield, but it can cause serious and even deadly burns.  While white phosphorus munitions are banned from use in civilian areas under UN conventions, there is no blanket ban on its use as a smokescreen or for illumination. Human-rights groups have cited doctors in Gaza as describing how they had struggled to treat dozens of patients with unusually severe burns that were consistent with white phosphorus weapons during the Israeli onslaught, saying that dozens had died as a result.

In one of the most memorable images of the attacks, glowing balls of phosphorus munitions were seen arching over an UN-run school in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, where 1,600 civilians were sheltering, killing two young boys. In the report, Israel also said that it had started 47 criminal investigations into alleged violations committed by its soldiers during the Gaza military campaign - 11 more than it had announced in January.

It also released details of some of those probes, including one in which it has indicted two soldiers who, while conducting a search in a building in Gaza City, forced a nine-year-old Palestinian boy at gunpoint to open several bags and suitcases that they suspected might be rigged with explosives. * With additional reporting by James Reinl, United Nations Correspondent