Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Israel admits troops may have used phosphorus shells in Gaza.

Having spent the last three weeks vociferously denying that they had used the banned weapon, white phosphorous, the Israelis have now admitted that they "may have"used it after all. This admission comes after the UN said that white phosphorous had been used on the main UN compound in Gaza City, which was hit by three shells on 15 January.

According to army sources the brigade fired up to 20 phosphorus shells in a heavily built-up area around the Gaza township of Beit Lahiya, one of the worst hit areas of Gaza.

The internal inquiry – which the army says does not have the status of the full investigation demanded by human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – follows weeks of fighting in which Israel either denied outright that it was using phosphorus-based weapons, or insisted that what weapons it was using "were in line with international law".

According to senior IDF officers, quoted today in the Ha'aretz newspaper, the Israeli military made use of two different types of phosphorus munitions.

The first, they insisted, was contained in 155mm artillery shells, and contained "almost no phosphorus" except for a trace to ignite the smoke screen.

The second munitions, at the centre of the inquiry by Col Alkalai, are standard phosphorus shells – both 88mm and 120mm – fired from mortars.

About 200 of these shells were fired during Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and of these – say the IDF – 180 were fired on Hamas fighters and rocket launch crews in northern Gaza.

Alkalai is investigating the circumstances in which the remaining 20 shells were fired, amid compelling evidence on the ground that phosphorus munitions were involved in the attack on a UN warehouse and a UN school.

Israel is not a signatory to the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons, but she is nevertheless required under the Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law to give "due care" to the civilian population when deciding on military targets and responding to hostile fire. The Israelis, by putting the blame for civilian deaths on to the fact that Hamas hide amongst the civilian population, appear to have ignored that part of international law, implying that these deaths are the responsibility of Hamas rather than the people firing the shells.

"They obviously could not have gone on denying the use of phosphorus," Donatella Rovera, Amnesty researcher for Israel and the Occupied Territories, told the Guardian yesterday. "There are still phosphorus wedges burning all over Gaza including at the UN compound and at the school.

"It is clear they are not using it as smoke screen as they claimed. They used it in areas where they had no forces, and there are much less problematic smoke screens that they could have used."

Amnesty on Monday warned that Israel could be guilty of war crimes, saying the use of the shells in a civilian areas was "clear and undeniable".

Rovera demanded too that Israel produce clear evidence that there were fighters in the areas it says its troops were fired upon when the phosphorus munitions were fired.

Does anyone believe that anything will ever come of this? It's simply impossible to imagine. Just as it's impossible to believe that charges will ever be brought against George W Bush who has admitted war crimes on national television.

We sign these treaties and conventions to warn other nations not to do what is proscribed in them and then behave as if these same treaties simply do not apply to us.

What is the difference between a war crime committed by Bush and one committed by Milosovic or Pinochet? Are we to believe that Bush is on the side of what is right and good and is, therefore, somehow exempt from binding international treaties which his country willingly signed up to?

We, and our allies, are guilty of a shocking double standard here.

It would appear that one can only commit a war crime if you are from certain parts of the Middle East or the Balkans.

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