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War crimes accusations rattle Israel

In the wake of the Gaza war, Israel is preparing to defend itself and its soldiers against possible criminal charges in European courts that claim 'universal jurisdiction.'

By Correspondent / February 4, 2009

Three-week war: Israel’s battle with Hamas killed 1,300 Palestinians, and 13 Israelis were killed during the fighting. At left, Israeli soldiers just outside Gaza on Jan. 20.

Amir Cohen/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

Three-and-a-half years ago, Israeli reserve Gen. Doron Almog was forced to flee Britain just after landing in London. He had been tipped off about a surprise warrant for his arrest issued by a British magistrates court. The charge: war crimes.

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Now, as the recent Gaza war stirs up more accusations of offenses, the Jewish state and international human rights advocates are gearing up for more potential criminal cases against military officers and political leaders in Europe and possibly elsewhere.

But instead of international tribunals or the Israeli justice system, the main venue for the cases is expected to be European domestic courts that cite a legal approach known as "universal jurisdiction" that allows for the trial of cases of heinous acts, torture, or war crimes that allegedly occur outside their own borders.

Israelis consider the threats part of an ongoing political witch hunt. Palestinians and humanitarian activists, on the other hand, see the domestic courts as the only forum to argue whether war crimes were committed.

"The systems in place across a number of countries will be tested.... We have legal teams working across and beyond European countries" on behalf of Palestinian plaintiffs claiming war crimes, says Daniel Machover, an Israeli-born British lawyer who works in coordination with the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights and pushed for Mr. Almog's arrest in 2005. "There's no other way a country under occupation or a land under occupation can seek justice."

Mr. Machover also helped bring before a Spanish national court the case of the Israeli assasination of a Hamas military chief in 2002.

That bombing allegedly killed more than a dozen civilians in a Gaza neighborhood.

Just last week, a Spanish judge announced an investigation, sparking tension between Israel and Spain, and spurring more speculation in Israel of war crimes efforts.

Dogged by a series of allegations ranging from targeting civilian locations to preventing the evacuation of noncombatants, Israel's government in recent weeks reaffirmed a commitment to offer legal defense to soldiers and politicians implicated in the cases. It has also decided to keep the identities of soldiers secret to protect as many as possible from prosecution.

According to Palestinian officials, more than 1,300 Gazans were killed and thousands wounded during the three-week Israeli offensive against Hamas last month. The number of noncombatants included in those figures is disputed. Only 13 Israelis were killed, most of them were soldiers.

In her debut address as the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice called on Israel to investigate the behavior of its military in the recent Gaza war and accused Hamas of its own violations for firing rockets at Israeli towns and working out of civilian areas.

An Israeli investigation is unlikely given the conviction by most Israelis that the Israel military did its best to limit injury to civilians. Israel and the US say Hamas has broken international law by shooting rockets at towns and cities and using Palestinian civilian areas as a base.

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