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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Israel Admits Using White Phosphorus

I guess the photos of white phosphorus raining down on civilians are pretty hard to deny...

Israel backs down over white phosphorus

Palestinian civilians and medics run to safety during an Israeli strike over a UN school in Beit Lahia

Palestinians run for cover during the Israeli phosphorus strike over the UN Relief and Works Agency headquarters at Beit Lahia, Gaza, in January

Israeli troops stopped using white phosphorus shells in Gaza this year after The Times published evidence that they were injuring civilians.

In its first explicit admission, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said that “media buzz” had forced the army to withdraw the shells from its arsenal on January 7 - the day that The Times obtained photographs of stockpiles and two days after the newspaper had exposed the effect of white phosphorus on the population of Gaza.

Phosphorus bombs may be used to create smokescreens but their use as weapons of war in civilian areas is banned by the Geneva Conventions. They cause severe burns that can penetrate to the bone.

An IDF briefing yesterday after an inquiry into the three-week Gaza offensive disclosed that two different munitions containing white phosphorus had been used. Mortar shells fired by ground forces and 76mm rounds fired from naval vessels both contained phosphorus as an active ingredient.

Until now the IDF has denied the Times accounts. On January 7 a military spokeman said that the shells in question had “no explosives and no white phosphorus”. Yet it was clear from yesterday's briefing by Major-General Dan Harel, the IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, that commanders were concerned by the controversy. “Since this was a big buzz in the media, we issued an order 7 Jan '09 to stop using white phosphorus shells,” he said, adding: “These shells were used only to create smokescreens, in keeping with international law.”

Even after the January 7 order the IDF continued to deploy less dangerous “smoke shells”, which contain felt soaked in phosphorus.

Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27 in an effort to halt daily rocket attacks by Hamas militants from Gaza that were terrorising residents in southern Israel.

Yesterday's briefing was based on five IDF investigations into alleged violations committed by the military during the operation, in which more than a thousand Palestinians were killed. An Israeli official said that inquiries “revealed a very small number of incidents in which intelligence or operational errors took place”. By and large, the army had “maintained a high professional and moral level”.

The incidents included an attack that killed 21 people when forces targeted a home rather than a nearby weapon storage facility. “These unfortunate incidents are unavoidable and occur in all combat situations, in particular of the type which Hamas forced on the IDF by choosing to fight from within the civilian population,” the official said.

Human Rights Watch said: “We consider the IDF investigations a cover-up for serious violations of international law. Hamas also seriously violated the laws of war.”

Timetable of allegations and rebuttals

January 5 The Times reports tell-tale smoke above Gaza. An Israeli military official says: “We categorically deny the use of white phosphorus.”

January 8 The Times runs pictures of white phosphorus shells stockpiles. Major Avital Leibovich, a military spokesman, says: “This is what we call a quiet shell - it has no explosives and no white phosphorus. It is not for killing people.”

January 12 The Times finds more than 50 phosphorus burns victims in hospital

January 14 Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff, says: “The IDF acts only in accordance with international law and does not use white phosphorus .”

January 16 UN Relief and Works Agency HQ hit with phosphorus munitions

January 21 Major Leibovich admits use of white phosphorus “according to international law”. Major- General Amir Eshel, the army's head of strategic planning, says: “It is the most non-lethal kind of weapon. I don't see any issue with that.”

January 23 Israel launches investigation into white phosphorus munitions: “Some practices could be illegal. The IDF is holding an investigation concerning one specific unit and one incident.”

April 22 Israeli military official tells The Times that a “media buzz” led to the order to stop using white phosphorus shells

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"I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me, and finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin." --Mary Shelley, from Frankenstein