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IDF Using Flesh-Burning Chemical Against Civilians

In the face of mounting evidence and criticism over the army's use of white phosphorus, the official Israeli line has not changed: Deny, deny, deny.
 
 
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More and more press reports about Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) using a controversial weapon against the Gaza Strip continue to surface. Even in the face of mounting evidence and criticism from increasingly reliable sources, however, the official Israeli line has not changed: Deny, deny, deny.

This morning, the IDF reportedly attacked a United Nation's Relief and Works Agency building with white phosphorous shells, saying that a gunman had fired on the Israelis and fled to the building. A spokesman for the agency denied the allegation.

The building hit is was sheltering civilians, and storing food and fuel for distribution projects that had been suspended due to the danger to relief workers.

"The Israelis have shot three phosphorus shells against the compound, where hundreds of civilians are being sheltered," Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the agency,told Bloomberg. The Israeli government, meanwhile, has remained mum.

Well into last week, numerous international organizations had also stayed silent on the use of white phosphorous since January 5 when initial press reports surfaced. However, by the weekend, a prominent human rights group had confirmed the use of the chemical white phosphorous by the in its two-week-old attack on the Gaza Strip.

"On January 9 and 10, 2009, Human Rights Watch researchers in Israel observed multiple air-bursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over what appeared to be the Gaza City/Jabaliya area," said a statement from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) over the weekend.

HRW called on Israel to "stop using white phosphorus in military operations in densely populated areas of Gaza."

Despite the accusations, the IDF has persistently denied the allegation and refused to identify the weapon used in photographs and video that several experts have identified as displaying the signature smoke-bursts of white phosphorous.

"It's very clear [Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border] are handling American-manufactured white phosphorous rounds," HRW's Marc Garlasco told Al Jazeera English, describing watching himself as the munitions exploded over the Jabaliya refugee camp.

Al Jazeera English, the only major English-language international news channel with a camera crew in Gaza, also broadcast images of what appeared to be chunks of white phosphorous burning in the middle of a street as children prodded the fragments with sticks.

White phosphorous, nicknamed Willy Pete, is a controversial weapon that creates thick white smoke and, because of high reactivity to oxygen, can also be used as an incendiary weapon.

When used, as it reportedly is over Gaza, as an obscurant to block the view of enemy forces, burning bits of phosphorous can still fall to the ground and "severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire," according to the HRW release.

The chemical has been known to burn human flesh clean down to the bone.

Doctors in Gaza interviewed by both Al Jazeera English and the British newspaper, the Times, reported large numbers of burn victims with usually deep wounds consistent with those caused by white phosphorous, though certain attribution to the weapon has not been made.

White phosphorous is known as a particularly effective obscurant because the thick white smoke blocks infra-red vision as well as sight.

White phosphorous is not considered a chemical weapon and is not banned outright by any international convention, but Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional weapons regulates its use on military targets.

It is prohibited, according to the Protocol, to use incendiary weapons on military targets "located within a concentration of civilians."

The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated pieces of land on the globe, with about 1.5 million people in an area measuring 360 square kilometers.

However, Israel is not party to Protocol III, and, furthermore, its use of white phosphorous appears to use the chemical solely as an obscurant.

Nonetheless, the HRW report suggests that this use by Israeli forces in the Gaza war may still be illegal.

"Human Rights Watch believes that the use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas of Gaza violates the requirement under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life," said the release. "This concern is amplified given the technique evidenced in media photographs of air-bursting white phosphorus projectiles."

Last Monday, the Times published photos that showed munitions exploding over Gaza with the tell tale signature of thick white smoke descending from a central burst like tentacles with burning tips.

An IDF spokesperson speaking to the Timesdenied the use of white phosphorus, but refused to identify the munitions used in the photographs, only saying that Israel was using weapons allowed by international law.

On Wednesday evening, the popular U.S. news network, CNN, ran a segment on the speculation over the use of white phosphorous in Gaza.

An Israeli official told the network, "I can tell you with certainty that white phosphorus is absolutely not being used."

But defense expert John Pike of website GolbalSecurity.org said that videos of Gaza showed that white phosphorous was unmistakably being used.

"White phosphorous. Willy Pete. White phosphorus shells, obviously. There's nothing else like it. That's obviously what it is. No doubt whatsoever," Pike said the CNN segment after being shown watching a video of an air-burst of smoke over Gaza.

Again on Thrusday, the Times published further photographic evidence of Israeli white phosphorous shells stockpiled with an IDF artillery unit just outside the borders of Gaza.

The photograph clearly shows a large shell marked "M825A1." An IDF spokeswoman told the Times that the particular munitions in the photograph are empty shells used for targeting.

Then asked what the obscurant munitions being shown in press videos and photographs were, the IDF spokeswoman said, "We're using what other armies use and we're not using any weapons that are banned under international law."

But the Times then quoted Neil Gibson of Jane's Missiles and Rockets, a website newsletter on missile and rocket technology, who says that the "M825A1" designation denotes an improved white phosphorous shell.

The Times report also states that the "M825A1" marking designates the weapon as U.S. made.

Israel was condemned by rights groups for using white phosphorous in its war with Hezbullah in the summer of 2006.

U.S. forces were also accused of using the chemical in 2004 to flush out Iraqi insurgents in the second battle of Fallujah. Initially, the U.S had denied using white phosphorous as a weapon, claiming that is had only been used for illumination.

However, the U.S. was forced to retract the denial in 2005, and a military spokesperson confirmed that white phosphorous had indeed been used by U.S. troops as an incendiary weapon against insurgents.