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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.

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.