The High Court of Justice will begin deliberations Sunday on whether to open a criminal investigation into allegations that the Israel Defense Forces committed war crimes during two operations in the Gaza Strip in 2004.
The court will hold the hearing following a petition by Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel. The organization petitioned the court to order a criminal investigation concerning the death of Palestinian citizens during Operation Rainbow in May 2004 and Operation Days of Penitence the following October.
Dozens of Palestinians – 44 of them children – were killed in the two operations, and 258 houses were destroyed. According to the petition, the houses were home to 522 families.
Adalah's petition charges Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, the military advocate general, Brigadier General Avichai Mandelblitt and Brigadier General (res.) Shmuel Zakai, then commander of the Gaza Region Division, with war crimes.
In addition, it accuses the top echelon of the defense establishment of complicity in the killings. The officials named include Major-General Dan Harel, who was then chief of the Southern Command, as well as then chief-of-staff Moshe Ya'alon and then defense minister Shaul Mofaz.
More than 320 civilians were among a threefold increase in the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces last year, according to Amnesty International. The human rights group's 2007 report says that over half of the more than 650 Palestinians killed in 2006 were civilians, 120 of them children and young people under 18. Amnesty defines civilians, "as people that are reasonably supposed never to have been involved in armed operations".
While Amnesty said that dozens of Palestinians were killed in the West Bank it pointed out that most of the increase resulted from aerial and artillery bombardments in Gaza after the abduction of the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit in late June and in response to increased Qassam rocket fire on Israel. These included, for example, the shelling of a house in the northern town of Beit Hanoun which killed 17 members of the Athamneh family.
The report said 21 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians militants in the same year, the lowest figure since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000.
Amnesty also accused soldiers and settlers of committing "serious human rights abuses, including unlawful killings against Palestinians mostly with impunity". Although it said settler attacks on farmers in the West Bank had decreased, they were continuing.
The Israeli authorities are planning to build three new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, an area regarded as occupied land under international law.
The plan, which has yet to receive final approval, would involve building about 20,000 homes.
The Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the plan destroyed efforts to re-start the peace process.
He said Israel had to choose between settlements or peace, but could not have both.
Israel rounded up a Palestinian Cabinet minister and 32 other Hamas leaders in the West Bank before dawn Thursday, trying a new tactic in its campaign to pressure the Islamic militant group into halting rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian president condemned the arrests, saying they would hinder his efforts to restore a truce with Israel, and Washington expressed concern about the detentions. Hamas threatened to retaliate with attacks inside the Jewish state.
The arrests reflected an Israeli decision to target the Hamas political leadership – but not necessarily with the lethal airstrikes it has staged over the past week on targets linked to the Hamas military arm.
Israeli aircraft staged attacks during the day and into the night, mainly on Hamas training bases and command posts. A huge plume of black smoke rose over Gaza City after an afternoon attack, but there were no serious injuries, Palestinian medics said.
Israel carried out an air strike near the Gaza residence of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Friday but insisted he was not the target.
"Haniyeh's home definitely was not the target," an Israeli army spokeswoman said.
The overnight attack was part of a seven-strike effort by the Israeli air force targeting Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant posts, including a weapons manufacturing facility, an army statement said.
"There was an air strike on a structure used by the Hamas terrorist organisation in Shati refugee camp," the spokeswoman said.
Residents said a missile hit a caravan used by Hamas men guarding a street leading to Haniyeh's home in Gaza, wounding one person. Israeli officials have in the past put Haniyeh on notice he and other Hamas political leaders could be attacked if cross-border rocket attacks continued.
Imagine if they were interested in war.