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Analysis: Israel listening to world opinion?

International reactions to the Gaza war are behind Israel's decision to consult lawyers on military action.

Jewish youths hold flags they take part in the Sderot Rally for Hope near the southern town of Sderot, close to the Gaza Strip (seen in the background), Dec. 31, 2009. The rally marked one year since the start of a three-week offensive Israel launched in Gaza during which more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Israel launched the offensive with the declared aim of stopping Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — A decision by Israel to take legal advice during combat marks a belated acknowledgment that its international standing has been badly wounded by last year's bombardment of Gaza.

Israel now realizes it can no longer ignore criticism of alleged war crimes, which it denies. Still, the move by chief of staff Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi’s — involving increased participation of army legal advisers in real time — is a limited step and perhaps a largely cosmetic one.

According to the decision, legal officers will be involved in battle decision-making and a greater emphasis will be placed on educating officers in the rules of war and international law. The officers reportedly did take part in the planning of the three-week operation launched in Gaza in late December 2008 but reportedly were rarely consulted after it was launched.

“It seems that the army has concluded that the world wants to see us do something,” said Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. But, he added: “This may just be for show.” 

It is no coincidence that Ashkenazi took his decision days after Israeli officers were forced to cancel an official visit to Britain because London could not guarantee they would not face arrest under universal jurisdiction provisions for alleged war crimes in Gaza.

Last month, a London court issued an arrest warrant against the Israeli opposition leader and former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, for alleged war crimes in Gaza. The warrant was rescinded after it emerged that Livni had cancelled her trip.

But beyond the universal jurisdiction threat is Israeli embarrassment over the report last year of a U.N. team headed by Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist. The probe found both Israel and Hamas guilty of war crimes. But it leveled most of its criticism at the Israel Defense Forces for alleged abuses during the three-week conflict that took the lives of an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Israel said it launched the operation in response to Hamas rocket attacks on its southern towns.

The report, which alleged that the Israeli military justice system does not meet international standards, was endorsed by the U.N. Human Rights Council and theoretically has paved the way for prosecutions of Israeli officers at the International Criminal Court. It charged there was strong evidence of “grave breaches” by Israel of the Fourth Geneva Convention, including willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment willfully causing great suffering or serious injury and extensive destruction of property. It also alleged use of civilians as human shields by the Israeli troops.