Israeli army denies claims it censured pair over Gaza shelling

The IDF publicly denies that two senior officers have been reprimanded for firing white phosphorous shells in the direction of a Gaza compound.

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With a critical United Nations debate fast approaching, conflict erupted yesterday between Israel's powerful military and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, over how to deal with accusations that soldiers committed grave human-rights abuses during last winter's war in the Gaza Strip. In a highly unusual move, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) publicly denied that two senior officers had been reprimanded for firing skin-burning white phosphorous shells in the direction of a Gaza compound belonging to the UN agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

The assertion that Gen Eyal Eisenberg and Brigade Commander Col Ilan Malka had been disciplined - and the tacit acknowledgement that human-rights organisations had been correct in alleging that the Israeli military had acted irresponsibly in the January 15 incident - was included in a report given by Israeli diplomats to the UN on Friday. The two officers, the report said, were disciplined for "exceeding their authority in a manner that jeopardised the lives of others".

It was not immediately clear what the IDF objected to. Its slap at the government was issued without comment. But fears have recently swelled in Israel that the growing international clamour for accountability over the army's conduct during "Operation Cast Lead" could lead to the detention or arrest of senior Israeli political and military officials when they travel abroad. The government's naming of the two officers was unlikely to have pleased the army.

The public feud comes just days before the UN General Assembly is scheduled to debate the findings of the Goldstone Report, which accuses both the IDF and Hamas of committing serious human-rights abuses during the 22-day war. The UN had demanded that both sides respond to the allegations by tomorrow. Israel has waged a particularly intense campaign aimed at staving off international pressure for an independent inquiry of the IDF's conduct during the three-week offensive, which the report recommended.

Last month, it paid US$10.5 million (Dh38.6m) to the UN for the damage it caused to schools, offices and other UN properties in Gaza during the war. In reimbursing the UN, Israel said the damage was unintentional. If it deems the responses of Israel and Hamas unsatisfactory, the UN could recommend that the Goldstone investigation's findings be forwarded to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for possible prosecution.

The report, named after Richard Goldstone, a South African judge who led the UN investigation, concluded most controversially that Israel waged "a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability".

The now-disputed reprimands of senior military officers and the payment to the UN do not necessarily represent wholesale gestures of contrition. Israel's government and military have appeared to be pursuing a two-track PR strategy of modest co-operation and concession on the one hand, and vitriolic public condemnation intended to discredit the report, on the other. In a speech on Sunday, the IDF's deputy chief of staff, Major Gen Benny Gantz, branded the Goldstone Report a "Trojan horse".

The report "gives terrorist organisations legitimacy to fight us from urban populations", Gen Gantza told the audience made up of the cream of Israel's political, military and business establishment, adding: "Our moral soundness is clear after dozens of investigations and interrogations." A prominent American apologist for Israel, the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, also kept up a similar drumbeat on Sunday, declaring that Mr Goldstone, a Jew and former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, was a "traitor to the Jewish people".

The Goldstone Report is "a defamation written by an evil, evil man", Mr Dershowitz told Israel's Army Radio, likening the report's examination of possible war crimes committed by both sides during the war to the infamously and virulently anti-Semitic 1903 Russian tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.