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Israeli Use of Phosphorus Against Gazans Disputed

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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 26, 2009

JERUSALEM, March 25 -- Israel's use of white phosphorus artillery shells led to the deaths of at least 12 Palestinian civilians and destroyed millions of dollars in property during the recent three-week war in the Gaza Strip, the organization Human Rights Watch says in a report released Wednesday.

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Israeli military officials called the claim "baseless" and said the shells, designed to produce a smoke screen, were used in accordance with accepted rules.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, a frequent critic of Israeli military practices, says its review of the Gaza fighting found instances in which white phosphorus rounds were used in urban areas under circumstances that had no clear military rationale. The group calls it a violation of the international laws of warfare.

White phosphorus shells are used as an "obscurant" to hide troop movements or block an enemy's vision by distributing more than 100 burning, phosphorus-soaked pieces of felt across an area of perhaps 150 yards. Although widely employed by modern armies, their use has been criticized because the pieces of felt fall randomly and can set fires or cause deep and sometimes fatal burns if they land on a person.

The risk of such damage rises in urban settings, and the Human Rights Watch report concludes that the Israeli army did not follow proper precautions for the shells' use.

"The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) repeatedly exploded white phosphorus munitions in the air over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians, and damaging civilian structures," the organization says. That use "violated international humanitarian law, which requires taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm and prohibits indiscriminate attacks."

An IDF spokesman said in a written statement that the use of white phosphorus during the Gaza conflict is being investigated, along with several other aspects of the operation.

"The investigation is close to conclusion, and based 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," the IDF 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."

The Human Rights Watch report and the IDF response are part of an intensifying struggle within Israel and internationally to define what happened in Gaza. Israel said it launched the 22-day Operation Cast Lead in late December to halt years of rocket and mortar fire directed from Gaza against Israeli towns and cities by Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Critics of the operation say it was a disproportionate response that killed hundreds of civilians and caused massive property destruction and humanitarian suffering for the area's 1.5 million residents.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights says 1,417 Palestinians died -- including 236 combatants, 255 police officers and 926 civilians.

Israeli officials say about 1,300 Palestinians were killed -- 600 of them identified as fighters, a number that includes roughly 240 police personnel. Israeli officials say at least 200 -- perhaps as many as 300 -- civilians died. Another 200 of the dead remain unidentified, but Israeli officials cite their figures as proof that their military was restrained in a difficult urban battle against an irregular Hamas force that used civilian areas to shield itself. Thirteen Israelis died during the war, including three civilians.

In an interview, Human Rights Watch spokesman Bill Van Esveld said one missing element in the report is the perspective of the Israeli commanders who made the decision to fire white phosphorus shells at specific moments -- a perspective that the military declined to provide. The text of the report also notes some cases in which Palestinian fighters were present in the areas where phosphorus shells were used -- though it still criticizes the use of the shells as unnecessary.

It is not certain how much white phosphorus was used during the conflict. An IDF official said the number of shells was likely in the "dozens."


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