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Gaza: Israel under fire for alleged white phosphorus use

On Tuesday, the Israeli army denied using white phosphorus munitions. A Norwegian doctor claims Israel is using Gaza as a 'test laboratory for new weapons,' including Dense Inert Metal Explosives, or DIME.

By Staff writer, Correspondent / January 14, 2009

White Phosphorus? Israel denies using harmful white phosphorus munitions in its explosions, such as the one shown above, on Jan. 3 in Gaza.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

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Paris; and Beirut, Lebanon

Marc Garlasco has been on the northern border of Gaza for the past five days watching what he says are white phosphorus munitions exploding over a crowded refugee camp.

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Mr. Garlasco, a senior military analyst for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that the way Israel is using the incendiary device is illegal. White phosphorus shells contain more than 100 felt filaments that ignite upon contact with the atmosphere, drift to earth, and burn intensely for at least 10 to 12 minutes.

The usage of white phosphorus is not illegal under international law if it's used in military operations as a smoke screen to cover troop movements or against bunkers, armored vehicles, and ammunition dumps. But its use is forbidden against people – civilians and soldiers alike – under nearly all military codes and laws.

"The use of white phosphorus is banned as a weapon that causes 'unnecessary suffering,' " says Mark Ellis, director of the International Bar Association in London. "It isn't to be used in civilian areas, or indeed against people since it creates horrible damage to the human body, and unnecessarily so."

Israel, which has been charged with using white phosphorus in Lebanon, says it is not using white phosphorus in its war against Hamas in Gaza, now in its 18th day.

"The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorus," IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Israel's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday in response to a query.

But Garlasco says that phosphorus is clearly being used in the Jabaliya refugee camp, one of the most crowded areas in Gaza.

"I can see them; we are very certain, whatever the Israeli Defense Forces may say, that white phosphorus is being used. It was used by Israel in Lebanon in 2006, but not until the population fled. In Gaza, the population can't flee."

As the offensive continues, which has killed more than 900 people, a variety of European doctors in Gaza, human rights groups, news organizations like Al Jazeera, and observers on the border are reporting instances and sightings of weapons use that is causing deaths, and wounds they say they have not encountered before. Most are calling for access to Gaza to determine what is true amid a rage of reports and rumors.