JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Thursday it had detained scores of Palestinians during fighting in the Gaza Strip, deeming them "murderers and terrorists" rather than prisoners of war.
Israel launched its offensive 17 days ago, aiming to stop militants from Hamas, which rules the coastal enclave, and their allies from firing rockets into its territory.
"Yesterday we detained some 150 people in Gaza for suspected involvement in terror activity and by now approximately half of them were released back to Gaza. The rest are being questioned," a military spokeswoman said.
The Palestinian death toll rose on Thursday to 729, most of whom were civilians, Gazan authorities said. At least 32 Israeli soldiers have been killed along with three civilians who died in rocket attacks on Israel.
Asked about the status of the Gazans in Israeli custody, senior Defence Ministry official Amos Gilad said: "These are not prisoners of war. These are detainees. These are not people who are recognised under international treaties. They are murderers and terrorists."
"We are taking them, addressing the immediate needs for helping the objective, which is to improve the efficiency of the security-military operation," he told Israel Radio, referring to interrogations meant to yield intelligence about Hamas.
Pictures of one group of men being held by Israeli soldiers were published on the Israeli news website Walla. In one photograph, a few dozen detainees were blindfolded wearing blue suits, in others they were stripped to their underwear.
It was unclear who took the pictures, which seemed to be amateur in style, or where or when they were taken. Asked about the photographs, another military spokeswoman said: "To the best of my knowledge, these pictures weren't staged."
Qadoura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoner Club, said that the posting of the pictures was an attempt by Israel "to cover up for the failure and disappointment within the Israeli army and to give an impression to the Israeli community the army is making achievements".
"These are not images of fighters in the battlefield, these are images of civilians," he said.
On Thursday, the Gaza health ministry said Israeli army forces operating in the town of Khuzaa in the southern Gaza Strip stopped ambulances and detained five of the wounded who were being driven to hospitals.
(Reporting by Dan Williams, Ari Rabinovitch and Nidal al-Mughrabi; editing by David Stamp)