Israel's prime minister says his country will grant legal protection to soldiers who fought in the three-week war in the Gaza Strip, against possible allegations of war crimes.

Mr. Ehud Olmert said Sunday he had appointed Israel's justice minister, Daniel Friedman, to chair a committee to offer a coordinated defense against what he called "self-righteous people" who might want to sue Israeli soldiers.

This past week, a United Nations human rights expert, Richard Falk, accused Israel of violating humanitarian law by conducting an offensive against, in his words, "an essentially defenseless population."

Israel says it undertook the three-week offensive to defend itself against rocket attacks launched by the Islamist group Hamas.

U.S. diplomatic sources say President Barack Obama is sending his Middle East envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, to the region this week and that he is expected to meet with Israeli leaders as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

Mr. Obama has said Mitchell is traveling to the region to make sure the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is sustainable, saying he is deeply concerned about the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life.

News of the trip comes as painstaking behind-the-scenes negotiations are getting under way in Egypt between Egyptian mediators and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Egyptian officials say they are trying to broker a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, as well as help reconcile Hamas with Fatah, its rival Palestinian faction which controls the West Bank and is led by Mr. Abbas.

Some 1,300 Palestinians were killed during Israel's 22-day offensive, which ended after both sides declared cease-fires last Sunday.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.