After weeks of denying that it used white phosphorus in the heavily populated
Gaza Strip, Israel finally admitted yesterday that the weapon was deployed
in its offensive.
The army's use of white phosphorus - which makes a distinctive shellburst of
dozens of smoke trails - was reported first by The Times on
January 5, when it was strenuously denied by the army. Now, in the face of
mounting evidence and international outcry, Israel has been forced to
backtrack on that initial denial. "Yes, phosphorus was used but not in any
illegal manner," Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The
Times. "Some practices could be illegal but we are going into that. The
IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is holding an investigation concerning one
The incident in question is thought to be the firing of phosphorus shells at a
UN school in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on January 17. The
weapon is legal if used as a smokescreen in battle but it is banned from
deployment in civilian areas. Pictures of the attack show Palestinian medics
fleeing as blobs of burning phosphorus rain down on the compound.
A senior army official also admitted that shells containing phosphorus had
been used in Gaza but said that they were used to provide a smokescreen.
The Ministry of Defence gave lawyers the task before the attack of
investigating the legal consequences of deploying white phosphorus -
commonly stocked in Nato arsenals and used by US and British forces in Iraq
and Afghanistan - inside the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians,
and one of the most densely populated places in the world.
"From what I know, at least one month before it was used a legal team had been
consulted on the implications," an Israeli defence official said. He added
that Israel was surprised about the public outcry. "Everyone knew we were
using it, and everyone else uses it. We didn't think it would get this much
attention," he said.
Because Israel is not a signatory to the treaty that created the International
Court of Justice in The Hague, it cannot be tried there. Any country that is
a signatory to the Geneva Convention, however, can try to prosecute
individuals who took part in the Gaza operation as culpable of war crimes.
Despite a denial when The Times first reported the use of white
phosphorus, an army spokeswoman said yesterday that the military had never
tried to cover up its deployment. "There was never any denial from the
beginning," she said.
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January 5 The Times reports that telltale smoke has appeared
from areas of shelling. Israel denies using phosphorus
January 8 The Times reports photographic evidence showing
stockpiles of white phosphorus (WP) shells. Israel Defence Forces spokesman
says: "This is what we call a quiet shell - it has no explosives and no
January 12 The Times reports that more than 50 phosphorus burns
victims are taken into Nasser Hospital. An Israeli military spokesman
"categorically" denies the use of white phosphorus
January 15 Remnants of white phosphorus shells are found in western
Gaza. The IDF refuses to comment on specific weaponry but insists ammunition
is "within the scope of international law"
January 16 The United Nations Relief and Works Agency headquarters are
hit with phosphorus munitions. The Israeli military continues to deny its
January 21 Avital Leibovich, Israel's military spokeswoman, admits
white phosphorus munitions were employed in a manner "according to
January 23 Israel says it is launching an investigation into white
phosphorus munitions, which hit a UN school on January 17. "Some practices
could be illegal but we are going into that. The IDF is holding an
investigation concerning one specific unit and one incident"