Israel has warned military officers and senior officials that a threat of prosecution for alleged war crimes in Gaza could hinder future travel abroad.
Daniel Friedman, Israel's justice minister, was appointed to head a special task force to defend individuals detained abroad and the military censor declared that names of officers from lieutenant to colonel must not be published
At least four human rights groups are believed to be compiling suits alleging that Israelis perpetrated war crimes in planning or carrying out the three-week operation Cast Lead.
Daniel Friedman, Israel's justice minister, was appointed to head a special task force to defend individuals detained abroad and the military censor declared that names of officers from lieutenant to colonel must not be published.
More than 1,300 Palestinian deaths were reported during the offensive in Gaza and the United Nations has led demands that Israel investigate high-profile incidents including the shelling of its facilities.
Private prosecutions are already being prepared. "We are building files on war crimes throughout the chain of command from the top to the local level," said Raji Sourani of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. "We are convinced these have been the most bloody days for Gaza since the occupation and that war crimes were perpetrated against Palestinian civilians."
Courts in six countries, including Britain, have accepted petitions to prosecute alleged war crimes in previous wars. Most notoriously, activists in Belgium used a clause, since removed from the statute, to target the former prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
Accusations of war crimes strike an especially sensitive chord in Israel, a nation founded in the wake of the Holocaust. Comparisons between the long siege of Gaza and the Jewish ghettoes of central Europe draw a vociferous denunciation from the government. Israel insists troops did their best to limit civilian casualties in heavily populated areas where Hamas gunmen were attacking from tunnels and had booby-trapped civilian homes.
While senior politicians travel with diplomatic immunity, retired officials have already faced problems travelling abroad.
A retired major general, Doron Almog, was forced to remain on an El Al plane at Heathrow in 2005 after the Israeli military attaché warned he would be arrested if he disembarked. Gen Almog commanded Israeli forces in Gaza when a bombing raid on an apartment block that killed a Hamas commander, Salah Shehadeh, resulted in the deaths of 14 others. The magistrates' warrant was later quashed.
An unknown number of officials have been notified that they should submit future travel plans to the military for review. Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli lawyer, said that thousands of serving officers could be affected. "I would highly recommend any soldier or officer contemplating going to the UK to reconsider," he told an Israeli newspaper.
According to Lt Col David Benjamin of the Military Advocate Corps, lawyers were deployed at divisional commands in operation Cast Lead. He said: "Approval of targets which can be attacked, methods of warfare - it all has gone through us."
But ensuring that those involved in the Gaza Campaign are never sentenced is set to be a long-term challenge for Israel. "The government will stand like a fortified wall to protect each and every one of you from allegations," said Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, at a military gathering after a ceasefire was called last week.
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