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Israel Deals With An Image Problem, Again

More than two weeks after halting its Gaza offensive, Israel is still dealing with the international fallout, including a very public spat with the leader of Turkey, a slew of war crimes allegations and broken ties with Venezuela, Bolivia and Qatar.

It's not quite a major diplomatic crisis, but it is a serious public relations problem for the Jewish state, which once again finds itself on the defensive against an avalanche of accusations.

Israel's defenders say the country was acting in self-defense and charge that no other country would be singled out for the kind of criticism that has been slung in its direction since the beginning of the Gaza offensive on Dec. 27.

The Foreign Ministry says Israel's important relationships are unharmed and predicts the international mood will pass.

The three-week offensive, aimed at halting years of rocket fire at Israeli towns from Gaza, killed some 1,300 Palestinians, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians.

In related developments:

  • The Israeli navy on Thursday intercepted a ship delivering 60 tons of supplies from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip and said it was towing the vessel into an Israeli port. The ship set sail from the Lebanese port of Tripoli Tuesday in a bid to defy Israel's blockade of Gaza.
  • A U.N. aid agency said Thursday that armed Hamas police broke into a Gaza warehouse packed with humanitarian supplies and seized thousands of blankets and food packages, reported CBS News correspondent Robert Berger. The U.N. condemned the incident "in the strongest terms." But Hamas justified the move saying the aid was being distributed to its political opponents. The incident underscored the tension between Hamas and the international community over who will rebuild the Gaza Strip.
  • The military said Thursday that Israeli troops on an arrest raid in the West Bank had killed a top Islamic Jihad militant. The military said it killed Ala a-din Abu Rop, the 21-year-old militant commander in the northern West Bank village of Qabatiya. Abu Rop's brother says he had been arrested in the past and has been wanted for the past year and a half. He said troops barged into their home and shot his brother while he was sitting at a computer.

    Perhaps the most noteworthy diplomatic outburst was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spat with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum, usually a refined get-together for the world's most powerful.

    "You kill people," Erdogan snapped at Peres, shortly after Peres offered an impassioned defense of the Israeli operation and shortly before Erdogan stormed off the stage.

    Despite hurried attempts at damage control from both sides, the flap has further disrupted the close alliance between the two countries. The hordes of Israeli package tourists who vacation in Turkey are reportedly staying home.

    The Davos incident came as a Spanish judge decided to open a war crimes investigation into a 2002 incident in which an Israeli F-16 killed a top Hamas mastermind in Gaza along with 14 other people, including nine children. Though it dealt with an earlier incident, the timing was clearly linked to the current violence.

    Hugo Chavez's Venezuela expelled the Israeli ambassador at the height of the fighting and Israel expelled the Venezuelan envoy in response. Bolivia couldn't expel the Israeli ambassador because it doesn't have one, but followed Chavez's lead by announcing it was cutting off ties.

    The small Persian Gulf state of Qatar said it was freezing ties and closed Israel's representative office - a key Israeli foothold in the Arab world - while Qatar's fellow Arab League member Mauritania suspended relations but let the Israeli ambassador stay.

    Syria called off the indirect peace talks it was holding with Israel through Turkish mediators. However, Syria's foreign minister said on Monday that his country would consider restarting the talks, provided Israelis choose a new leader in elections next week who adopts a "comprehensive" plan for Mideast peace. (Click here to read the story in World Watch by CBS News' George Baghdadi.)

    Those incidents followed weeks of protests in European capitals and across the Muslim world.

    The United Nations has called for investigations of Israel's shelling of several of the organization's compounds in Gaza, several rights groups have suggested Israel might be guilty of violating the rules of war and a group of U.S. professors is trying to organize an academic boycott.

    The Palestinian Authority has now recognized the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, a move aimed at paving the way for a war crimes investigation, though Israel has not ratified the treaty that established the court and thus cannot be prosecuted.

    On the other hand, Israel's most important ally, the U.S., gave its backing, with both the outgoing president and his successor stressing Israel's right to defend itself. Street protests aside, most world governments made do with only careful criticism.

    Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said Israel's key international alliances were unaffected and called the outpouring of anger "a temporary phenomenon."

    "We have come under some criticism from some countries more than from others, but basically everything can be handled within the normal framework of normal relations," he said.

    Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, a professor of international relations at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, called the current climate a "crisis situation" attributable largely to an international double standard.

    "People are expecting from us to be more moral, more just, more nice in this kind of conflict and sometimes it's indeed very difficult," he said. He mentioned Russia's war in Chechnya and Turkey's war against Kurdish rebels as examples of conflicts that caused far higher civilian casualties but received less attention and criticism.

    Many Israelis were especially rankled by Erdogan's comments, both because Israelis generally regard Turkey as friendly and because of Turkey's own spotty human rights record.

    "It's a shame to look at how this prime minister behaves. He doesn't mention what he does to the Kurds," the Turkish-born Bar-Siman-Tov said. The conflict between Turkey and Kurdish armed groups has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the 1980s, including thousands of civilians.

    Israel has been in this position before, most recently after its 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. That war ended inconclusively, with some 1,000 Lebanese and 159 Israelis dead, and drew similar condemnations of Israel's tactics and weaponry. Then, as now, Israel responded that it was attacked by guerrillas hiding among civilians and had no choice.

    The criticism this time resembles that of 2006, said Jonathan Spyer, an expert on international affairs at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center near Tel Aviv. Israel receives "vastly disproportionate" attention worldwide even in normal times, he said, "and in times of conflict it becomes accentuated."

    There has been a slight change in tone, he said, because this time, unlike in the Lebanon conflict, Israel is not seen to have failed.

    "This time Israel is being portrayed as the nasty neighborhood bully, rather than as an incompetent, flailing monster," he said.