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Israel Committed War Crimes in White Phosphorus Strike, Says UN

by James Bone in New York

A UN fact-finding mission has accused Israel of committing war crimes by using white phosphorus in built-up areas in the Gaza War, and called for the weapon to be banned in urban warfare.

Palestinians run for cover during the Israeli phosphorus strike over the UN Relief and Works Agency HQ in Gaza in January (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images) The investigation, set up by the controversial UN Human Rights Council, concluded that Israeli forces were "systematically reckless" in the use of white phosphorus in the conflict.

"The Mission believes that serious consideration should be given to banning the use of white phosphorus in built-up areas," the 575-page report said.

It singled out three Israeli attacks using white phosphorus, which is deployed as a smokescreen, that it considered disproportionate or excessive under international law.

The report said Israel failed to take "all feasible precautions" in using white phosphorus shells in the attack on the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) compound in Gaza City on Jaunary 15 despite the presence of up to 700 civilians.

"Given the evident threat of substantial damage to several hundred civilian lives and to civilian property in using white phosphorus in that particular line of fire, the advantage gained from using white phosphorus to screen Israeli armed forces' tanks from anti-tank fire from armed opposition groups could not be deemed proportionate," the report said.

It also criticised the use of white phosphorus in attacks on Al Quds hospital and the Al Wafa hospital. The UN investigation accused Israel of breaking international law by deliberately attacking civilians, using Palestinians as "human shields" and torturing detainees. The continuing Israeli blockade of Gaza could constitute "persecution", a crime against humanity, it added.

The UN team said war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity were also committed by "Palestinian armed groups" by indiscriminately firing rockets at civilians in southern Israel. He said Hamas would bear responsibility if it failed to take "necessary measures" to prevent the rocket firings.

The report urged the UN Security Council to give both sides six months to investigate and prosecute offenders before turning the matter over the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, a recommendation that is unlikely to be followed by the 15-nation council.

The UN fact-finding mission was set up in April by the UN Human Rights Council, a body that has a record of criticising Israel.

The team was led by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge who headed a commission on political violence in his homeland and served as the international prosecutor for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Israel refused to cooperate with the UN investigation and dismissed its findings as "prejudged."

Mr Goldstone is a Jew whose mother was involved in the Zionist movement in South Africa before the creation of Israel. He said:"As a Jew, I have an affiliation, and I have had an affiliation, and have made many visits to Isreal. Speaking from that point of view, it's obviously a great disappointment, putting it mildly, that Israelis have behaved in the way described in the report. I think it's grossly wrong to label a report that is critical of Israel as anti-Israeli. To accuse me of being anti-Israel is ridiculous."

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