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Israel Accused of Indiscriminate Phosphorus Use in Gaza

Human Rights Watch report claims Israel committed war crimes in its use of air-burst white phosphorus artillery shells

Rory McCarthy

Palestinian civilians and medics run to safety during an Israeli strike using phosphorus shells at a UN school. (Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israel's military fired white phosphorus over crowded areas of Gaza repeatedly and indiscriminately in its three-week war, killing and injuring civilians and committing war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a 71-page report,
the rights group said the repeated use of air-burst white phosphorus
artillery shells in populated areas of Gaza was not incidental or
accidental, but revealed "a pattern or policy of conduct".

It said the Israeli military used white phosphorus in a "deliberate or reckless" way. The report says:

  • Israel was aware of the dangers of white phosphorus.
  • It chose not to use alternative and less dangerous smoke shells.
  • In one case, Israel even ignored repeated warnings from UN staff before
    hitting the main UN compound in Gaza with white phosphorus shells on 15

"In Gaza, the Israeli military didn't just use white
phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops," said Fred
Abrahams, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher. "It fired white
phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its
troops weren't in the area and safe smoke shells were available. As a
result, civilians needlessly suffered and died." He said senior
commanders should be held to account.

Human Rights Watch called
on the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to launch an international
commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of violations of
international law in the Gaza war by the Israeli military and Hamas,
the Palestinian Islamist movement that controls Gaza.

The Israeli
military has defended its conduct in Gaza in the face of mounting
allegations of serious violations of international law and said its
soldiers did not intentionally target civilians. When Israel's use of
white phosphorus emerged during the war, the military at first denied
using the weapon, then said it only used weapons in accordance with
international law. Later it announced an internal inquiry, led by a
colonel, would be held.

Tonight the Israeli military said its
investigation into the use of white phosphorous was still under way,
but insisted its use of what it called 155mm "smoke shells" was legal.

on the findings at this stage it is already possible to conclude that
the IDF's use of smoke shells was in accordance with international
law," it said. "These shells were used for specific operational needs
only and in accord with international humanitarian law. The claim that
smoke shells were used indiscriminately, or to threaten the civilian
population, is baseless."

White phosphorus burns in contact
with oxygen and causes deep burns when it touches human skin, sometimes
reaching to the bone. The weapon is not illegal itself and can be used
to provide a smokescreen on the battlefield or as an incendiary weapon
against a military target. However, its use is regulated even by
customary international law. It must be used in a way that
distinguishes between combatants and civilians and cannot be used to
target civilians.

Most of the Israeli military's white phosphorus
in Gaza was fired in 155mm artillery shells, each containing 116 wedges
soaked with the chemical.

In January, the Guardian found one such
shell still smoking several days after it was fired, outside the home
of the Abu Halima family in Atatra. One white phosphorous shell hit the
house directly, killing a father and four of his children. His wife was
severely burnt. Human Rights Watch also reported the same case.

Rights Watch found 24 spent white phosphorus shells in Gaza, all from
the same batch made in a US ammunition factory in 1989 by Thiokol
Aerospace. Other shells were photographed during the war with markings
showing they were made in the Pine Bluff Arsenal, also in America, in

Human Rights Watch said the Israeli military often used the
weapon even in areas where there were no Israeli troops on the ground,
which it said, "strongly suggests that the IDF [Israel Defence Forces]
was not using the munition for its obscurant qualities but rather for
its incendiary effect".

The group said it found no evidence that
Hamas fighters used Palestinian civilians as human shields - a key
Israeli claim - in the area at the time of the attacks it researched.

The rights group studied six cases in detail in which 12 civilians were killed and dozens more were injured.

one case, witnesses described how a white phosphorus shell hit a car in
Tel al-Hawa, in south-eastern Gaza City, killing a bank manager, his
wife and two of their children on 15 January.

On the same day, at
about 7.30am, Israeli artillery shells began falling near the main
compound of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City, where 700
civilians were sheltering. UN staff made repeated telephone calls to
the Israeli military asking them to stop but, at about 10am, six shells
hit the compound, three of which contained white phosphorus. The
warehouse was hit, causing at least $10m of damage, and it continued to
burn for 12 days.

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said
at the time that "Hamas fired from the UNRWA site". But the UN has
always denied there were any militants in the compound or firing from
the compound.

In another case, on 17 January, an artillery shell
that had already discharged its white phosphorus hit a UN school in
Beit Lahiya, where 1,600 civilians were sheltering. It killed two
brothers in a classroom and severely injured their mother and cousin.

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