Israel: Phosphorus bombshells launched from Gaza

Israeli officials said white phosphorus – an incendiary banned for offensive use under international law – was in two of nine mortar shells fired from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel itself has been accused of using the weapon in Gaza.

A member of Hamas security forces neutralizes unexploded white phosphorous munitions in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, on March 15. United Nations officials blew up white phosphorous munitions that remained unexploded since the Gaza war.

Rumblings of war in Gaza provided the backdrop to peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem today, as rocket and mortar fire poured into southern Israel's Eshkol and an Israeli jet bombed a tunnel under the Egypt-Gaza border. No Israelis were harmed. One Palestinian was killed and four others wounded.

The Jerusalem Post reports that police said some of the missiles fired from Gaza contained white phosphorus, a chemical that burns on contact with oxygen. It is used in illumination rounds by the US and other militaries, but is also a potent weapon. The chemical burns until it's deprived of oxygen or until it consumes itself, and can generate horrific wounds.

The Jerusalem Post quoted Haim Yalin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, as saying: "These weapons have been banned by the Geneva convention. They cause burns among victims and they kill."

The use of white phosphorus isn't strictly illegal under international law. Armies are allowed to use it to provide illumination or to provide smoke to cover military operations. It is, however, illegal to use it deliberately on human targets.

How might militants in Gaza (whether the rockets were fired by members of Hamas or any of the smaller militant groups in Gaza is unclear) have obtained white phosphorus?

Well, Israel has used the stuff in the recent past.

Earlier this year, Israel said it had reprimanded two senior officers in charge of the offensive in Gaza in 2009 for exceeding their authority in using white phosphorus in Gaza.

Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who led a UN investigation that found likely war crimes in Gaza by both Hamas and Israel, wrote in his final report that “Israeli armed forces were systematically reckless in determining [white phosphorus] use in built-up areas."

It's not beyond the realm of possibility that phosphorus once used by Israel was saved by Palestinians in Gaza for attacks like the one today.

Dating back to the 1990s, both the United States and Human Rights Watch said they were convinced that Israel had used the weapon in fighting in Lebanon, something Israel denied.

More recently, Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon analyst and then a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told this paper last year that he had observed Israel firing white phosphorus over a refugee camp in Gaza.

Israel denied the charge at the time. "The IDF acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorus," Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Israel's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when asked about the charges at the time. (Mr. Garlasco later left Human Rights Watch under a cloud when it was discovered he was an avid collector of Nazi-era German military memorabilia).

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