Israeli military in PR offensive to explain civilian deaths in Gaza

Senior officers have met reporters to insist offensive was 'moral and ethical'

The Israeli military has moved to deflect a mounting barrage of criticism over the deaths of hundreds of civilians during its 22-day offensive in Gaza.

The public relations drive by the Israeli Defence Force has been given impetus by allegations made by some soldiers that permissive rules of engagement failed to protect civilians.

The allegations – currently being investigated by military police – have generated widespread publicity and led senior officers to meet reporters. At these meetings, they have sought to reinforce the military's assertion that, in the words of the Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazy, "the IDF acted morally and ethically. If there were incidents like these, they were isolated." The move also follows a series of reports from groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documenting civilian deaths which they say violated international law.

The latest was last week's detailed Human Rights Watch report which said the IDF's "deliberate" and "reckless" use of white phosphorus was "evidence of war crimes".

Israeli military intelligence last week released new figures indicating 1,166 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict. Of these, it said 295 were "uninvolved citizens" while 162 were "without an identified affiliation".

Both the military and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, have lists of names which PCHR – but so far not the IDF – has published. PCHR says 1,417 Palestinians were killed, and of these 926 were civilians, and 236 combatants.

Part of the discrepancy – though only part – is a matter of definition. PCHR includes as civilians both civil policemen – many of whom were new graduates killed in the bombing of a passing out parade on the offensive's first day on 27 December – and unarmed political activists. It argues, like Human Rights Watch, that this is supported by international law. The IDF however defines them all as among 709 Hamas "terror operatives".

Last week Colonel Roi Elkabets who commanded hundreds of armoured troops in Operation Cast Lead, cited to some foreign reporters examples of what he said were the dilemmas they faced.

In one case he said they identified a Hamas man with an AK-47 standing behind an elderly woman carrying a white flag and a group of up to eight children. They did not shoot the Hamas man, who also did not himself open fire, until he reappeared after the woman and children had gone.

Tank crews investigating a "ticking tunnel" allowed a man to pass by in his car in a closed area close to the Nahal Oz kibbutz, only to find, they said, that he had planted an improvised explosive device which was then detonated by an IDF bulldozer.

But the military has yet to rebut in detail many specific cases cited by human rights agencies and journalists who visited Gaza after the offensive in which witnesses described civilian deaths.

It has yet to give specific accounts, for example, of six cases described in detail by HRW of the alleged use of white phosphorus in civilian areas, another six in which civilians were killed even though they were in groups carrying white flags, or the repeated use of artillery in built-up areas.

*Yuval Diskin, head of Israel's intelligence agency Shin Bet told the Cabinet that 67 tons of weapons and material has been smuggled into Gaza since the end of the operation.

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