Jerusalem // Mounting fear in Israel that the country's leaders face war crimes charges over their involvement in the recent Gaza offensive pushed officials into a frenzy of activity at the weekend to forestall legal actions abroad. The urgency was underlined after rumours last week that Belgian authorities might arrest Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, if she attended a summit of European counterparts in Brussels on Wednesday. In an indication of how seriously the matter is judged, Ms Livni's advisers were on the verge of cancelling her trip when the story was revealed to be a hoax. Nonetheless, officials are braced for real attempts to arrest senior political and military figures following a warning from the country's chief law officer, Menachem Mazuz, that Israel will soon face "a wave of international lawsuits".
In response, the government is setting up a special task force to work on legal defences, has barred the media from naming or photographing army officers involved in the Gaza attack, and has placed restrictions on overseas visits. Today, ministers were expected to approve an aid package to help soldiers fight warrants abroad for their arrest. The concern about war crimes trials follows a series of pronouncements by Richard Falk, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the occupied territories and a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University in the United States.
He has accused Israel of gravely violating the laws of war during its three-week offensive, which killed more than 1,300 Gazans, most of them civilians, and wounded thousands more. "There is a well-grounded view that both the initial attacks on Gaza and the tactics being used by Israel are serious violations of the UN charter, the Geneva conventions, international law and international humanitarian law," he said during the final stages of fighting.
Since they gained entry to the tiny enclave after a ceasefire declared a week ago, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have added their voice. The two human-rights organisations have censured Israel over its failure to distinguish between Palestinian civilians and combatants as well as its use of controversial weapons. There is incontrovertible evidence, both groups say, that Israel fired white phosphorus shells over Gaza, despite its banned use in civilian areas, setting homes on fire and burning civilians caught under the shower of phosphorus.
Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, has also lambasted Israel for using high-explosive shells in built-up areas of Gaza, even though the artillery has a blast range of up to 300 metres. Initial indications suggest that the army may have resorted also to an experimental weapon - dense inert metal explosive, or Dime - that severs limbs and ruptures the internal organs of anyone close to the blast.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, is investigating claims forwarded by Saudi Arabia that depleted uranium shells were used in Gaza. In addition, human-rights groups have begun documenting instances of the Israeli army's targeting of civilian buildings, including UN schools, and of soldiers taking Palestinian civilians as human shields. A senior Israeli official told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper: "As far as the international arena is concerned, Israel is entering what is probably its darkest era."
In a further sign of concern, an unnamed government minister was quoted last week as saying: "When the scale of the damage in Gaza becomes clear, I will no longer take a vacation in Amsterdam, only at the international court in The Hague" - a reference to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands that tries war crimes. Over the past week about 300 human-rights organisations have jointly prepared a 37-page dossier of evidence to be presented to the court.
According to legal experts, it will be difficult to try Israel at the ICC because it is not a signatory to the Rome statute governing the court's jurisdiction and function. However, an ad hoc tribunal similar to the ones set up to deal with war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia may be an option. The ICC might also try to pursue individual Israeli commanders for war crimes. A more pressing concern for Israel is that European human-rights activists, especially in Britain and Belgium, could use local legislation to initiate war crimes trials in their domestic courts against Israeli leaders.
Such actions have been launched before, most notably in 2005 when Doron Almog, the former Israeli commander in Gaza, avoided being arrested in the United Kingdom only after he was warned to remain seated in a plane after his arrival at Heathrow airport. Major Gen Almog had overseen the demolition of hundreds of homes in Gaza three years earlier. In an attempt to make life more difficult for Israeli leaders, anonymous activists in Israel launched a website (www.wanted.org.il) - "outing" those it accused of war crimes, including Ehud Barak, the defence minister, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, and Ms Livni. It also identified most of the senior military command.
Offering photographs and information about each official's alleged offence, the site provides contact details for the ICC and tells visitors to alert the court when "the suspect is outside of Israel's borders". To avert the danger of arrests for war crimes, IsraeI hurriedly initiated a series of moves to protect its leaders. A special task force, overseen by the prime minister's office, will convene in the next few days to start building a defence for army commanders.
The Israeli media suggested experts on international law would seek to compile evidence that Hamas stockpiled weapons in civilian buildings, and that the army went to great efforts to warn residents to flee before bombing areas. The military censor is excising from media reports all identifying information about senior officers involved in the Gaza operation, and officers who wish to travel abroad will be required first to seek the advice of military officials.