Marian Houk, The Electronic Intifada, 1 April 2009
Israel's recent use of white phosphorus bombs in densely populated areas of Gaza violated the rules of war, according to report issued by a leading human rights organization last week. The 71-pages-long Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, entitled "Rain of Fire: Israel's Unlawful Use of White Phosphorous in Gaza," states that even before the group's researchers were able to enter Gaza, they had watched from adjacent perimeter areas in Israel as white phosphorus bombs exploded in the air over densely-packed residential areas in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli troops began using white phosphorus in Gaza after the ground phase of the military offensive started on 3 January, a week into the invasion of the Strip, and continued until the ceasefire two weeks later, according to HRW. The report notes that it was the first time that the Israeli military had ever used white phosphorus in the densely-populated coastal Strip, despite numerous previous ground incursions. The report also notes that Israel used white phosphorus twice in Lebanon, in 1982 and in 2006.
The Israeli military was well aware of the effects of white phosphorus and the extreme danger it poses to civilians, HRW says in the report. According to the group, if the Israeli army actually intended to use white phosphorus for its obscurant effect, it could only have done so lawfully in open areas, and not in downtown Gaza City, or downtown Beit Lahiya.
The report states that far safer alternatives are available -- such as the very effective smoke artillery manufactured by Israel Military Industries, that does not burn.
Ground-exploded white phosphorous creates a much thicker and more effective smokescreen than shells detonated in the air, HRW says, but that was not the tactic Israeli troops employed.
Moreover, in the cases documented by HRW, there was no military necessity to create smokescreens because there were no Israeli troops on the ground in those areas at the time.
Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher for HRW, said in a press conference in Jerusalem last Thursday that the evidence suggests the Israeli military intentionally used white phosphorus in Gaza for its incendiary properties.
"To us, the evidence suggests that the purpose in some of these cases may have been not to create a smokescreen, but to use white phosphorus specifically for its incendiary effect. Do we know that for sure? No, we don't. But, the evidence is suggestive that they used it for incendiary purposes," Abrahams told journalists.
The HRW report states that "the repeated use of air-burst white phosphorus in populated areas ... reveals a pattern or policy of conduct rather than incidental or accidental usage." These circumstances demand independent investigation, HRW says, and -- if warranted -- the prosecution of all those responsible for war crimes.
"The Israeli military and government is repeatedly blaming Hamas for civilian deaths in Gaza. Now, do we have something to say about Hamas' behavior in Gaza? Yes, we do ... This is the first in a series of reports we will be issuing. Its rocket attacks in Israel ... are a war crime. In the cases of this report ... we did not find evidence of Hamas using civilians as human shields. Now, were they in the area at the time of these attacks? In some cases, we believe they were, and that is documented in the report. We state very clearly where we believe Hamas was, and where it was not. The bottom line, and the crucial point, is even if enemy forces -- from the Israeli perspective, Hamas fighters -- are in the area, white phosphorus should not be used in civilian neighborhoods. And that's the bottom line," Abrahams stated.
The Israeli military issued a statement after the release of HRW report, saying that it was nearing the completion of its own investigation. In the statement, the military claims that its use of white phosphorus had been fully consistent with international humanitarian law.
But, Abrahams said, this shows that Israel has already drawn its conclusions before the investigation was finished. The Israeli military "at first denied repeatedly that white phosphorous was being used. Publicly and to the media, they denied that it was being used. Then, faced with incontrovertible evidence, photographs, that white phosphorus was being used, they back-tracked, and they said, well all the weapons that we use in Gaza are in compliance with international humanitarian law. And now, they tell us that they're opening an investigation. Well, quite frankly, we have a hard time accepting that at face value."
Abrahams also said that Israel "refused to give any details about the investigation, and these are the questions we want answered about the investigation: who's leading it? When will it be completed? What is the scope of the investigation? And, will its findings be made public? We don't have answers to any of those questions ... But, in fact, it doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter, because the statement yesterday concluded that the investigation already determined that the white phosphorus use was 'consistent with international humanitarian law.' So the findings have already been made public."
Moreover, HRW researchers are still denied access into Gaza through Israeli border crossings, Abrahams said, "and we can only conclude that this in an attempt to prevent us from conducting our investigations."
According to Abrahams, "In our view, the Israeli military has been infected by a climate of impunity, going back over since 2005, the disengagement [Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza]. There is an attitude that soldiers can do what and how they want in Gaza, and this has had a direct impact on civilian lives. It has caused civilians to die. That's because soldiers believe they can get away with what they want -- no one is watching. And that's why investigations are so important, to break this climate of impunity."
Marian Houk is a journalist currently working in Jerusalem with experience at the United Nations and in the region. This article originally appeared in an earlier form on her blog, www.un-truth.com.