Thursday, March 26, 2009

Israel accused of indiscriminate phosphorus use in Gaza.

The pressure really is being ratcheted up on Israel over the recent war in Gaza with Human Rights Watch now entering the fray and claiming, in a new 71 page report, that Israel "repeatedly and indiscriminately" fired white phosphorus into civilian areas during the conflict.

Such use of white phosphorus is a war crime.

Human Rights Watch say that the Israelis 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 January.

"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.

There really should be an inquiry into what took place here, especially as the Israelis spent most of the conflict denying that it was using white phosphorus at all. Indeed, it was only after this weapon was used against a UN shelter that the Israelis found it impossible to deny what they were doing.

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.

Human 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 1991.

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.

Israel's behaviour during the Gaza conflict was reprehensible. The only way to ensure that such behaviour is never repeated is to hold an inquiry which punishes those who broke the rules of war. Only if they know there is a price to be paid will Israeli military commanders - and Prime Minsters - think twice before they ever repeat the kind of atrocities we witnessed in Gaza.

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