Israelis admit to using white phosphorus shells
A year after Gaza, Israel says two officers have been disciplined. But is two enough?
For the first time since its bombardment of Gaza just over a year ago, Israel has admitted to punishing senior officers for violating rules of engagement. Buried in a document submitted to the UN on Friday is the revelation that a brigadier-general and a colonel in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) have been disciplined for allowing the misuse of white phosphorous shells.
"Several artillery shells were fired in violation of the rules of engagement prohibiting use of such artillery near populated areas," the report states. It is not clear who the officers were or how they have been punished.
The admission represents a breakthrough for those human rights organisations who have argued ever since the 22-day conflict in December 2008-January 2009 that Israel used white phosphorous shells in contravention of the Geneva accord. However, the fact that only two officers have taken the rap is unlikely to satisfy those who believe Israel made a habit of firing white phosphorous.
Its use in the conflict was particularly contentious because while it is allowed in certain circumstances - to lay smokescreens on open ground - it is not allowed in built-up areas where civilians could be severely burned. The fact that the entire Gaze strip is in effect a built-up area meant that it was dangerous to use it all.
At the time, the Israelis denied its misuse vociferously. Ehud Olmert's official spokesman Mark Regev got into a famous row with Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News anchor, in which he appeared to suggest that the C4 reporter Jonathan Miller and his film crew had somehow been hoodwinked by Gaza residents displaying white phosphorous burns. Regev even argued that, as far as Miller knew, the phosphorous might have been used by Hamas on their own people.
The Israeli document handed in at the UN on Friday was prepared in response to a General Assembly demand that both Israel and Hamas launch independent investigations into their conduct during the conflict. An Israeli official said its submission proved that the UN could depend on the Israeli justice system to be "reliable" and "independent".
The submission overturns an IDF statement issued last year which said: "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 claim that smoke shells were used indiscriminately, or to threaten the civilian population, is baseless."
But does the admission go far enough? Given the photographic evidence of white phosphorous use on many occasions during the bombardment of Gaza, many will question how only two officers could be responsible.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, concluded that the IDF "repeatedly exploded white phosphorus munitions in the air over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a hospital". ·
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