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The state prosecutor's office and the military advocate general say they expect legal action to be taken against Israel in the wake of the Gaza flotilla affair.

Such action might include arrest warrants against senior government officials and Israeli officers involved in the decision to take military action against the ships. Appeals are also expected to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, both by countries who are signatories to the Rome Statute establishing the court and indirectly by the United Nations.

The army and the state prosecutor's office are now gearing up to collect material to be used in Israel's defense.

A hint of such preparations was apparent in a statement to the High Court yesterday by State Prosecutor Moshe Lador during hearings on petitions involving the flotilla. Lador told the court that all the materials in the investigation "will be utilized for any need required, such as dealing [with the matter] in various arenas in the world ... to present the truth about the way the operation was carried out."

A senior legal official told Haaretz about concerns that human rights groups and other countries would use legal avenues to try to embarrass Israel and turn international public opinion against it.

However, the official said, unlike claims of war crimes in the case of Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone report, the flotilla incident cannot be considered a war crime in the classic sense.

Nick Kaufman, until recently an attorney at the state prosecutor's office and now a defense attorney at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, told Haaretz that the ICC has the authority to launch an investigation when a war crime is committed aboard a vessel registered in a country that is a member of the court.

Turkey is not a member, but it could join ad hoc for this case.

'Good defense'

Kaufman says it will be very hard for ICC prosecutors to accept Turkey's use of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to define the strike against a Turkish vessel as a war crime. This is because the prosecutors have not yet decided whether to launch an investigation into Operation Cast Lead, which the Palestinians have requested.

"Israel has a very good defense in that it acted to enforce a naval blockade that it considers legal, and it acted in self-defense," Kaufman said.

The High Court heard six petitions yesterday regarding IDF actions during the flotilla operation. Most of the petitions protested against the release and deportation of foreigners allegedly involved in attacks on Israeli commandos on the ship before the activists could be prosecuted.

Other petitioners demanded that the foreigners be released.

In a statement to the High Court yesterday, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said he had initially decided to order an investigation against activists suspected of offenses against the naval commandos during the flotilla operation. Weinstein said the ministerial committee on national security had debated whether to carry through with proceedings against foreigners involved in the confrontation.

However, after a thorough discussion of security, diplomatic, legal and other aspects, and discussions with the ministries of justice, defense, foreign affairs and public security, it was decided to allow the foreign suspects to be deported immediately.

Weinstein said he had weighed the public interest in pursuing legal action to its full extent. But he also had to take into account recommendations by government officials, based in part on the decision by the Defense Ministry to seek the immediate release of all foreigners. Foreign countries were also making appeals.

"In the end, I concluded that public and security interests were the overriding factors under the circumstances," Weinstein wrote.

Lador, in a rare appearence of a state prosecutor before the High Court, told the court that the foreigners would be released while the hearing was underway. He said they were on their way to the airport or already there.

"Israel is not delaying even one passenger, except for an injured person whose medical condition precludes travel," Lador said.

But Lador added that detainees who were not foreigners would be "dealt with according to the law in Israel."