Israelis disciplined for white phosphorus attack on Gaza

While dismissing many of the allegations made in Richard Goldstone's UN report on the war, Israel has reportedly disciplined two high-ranking officers for ordering the use of controversial white phosphorus during its invasion of Gaza in early 2009.

Hatem Moussa/AP
A Palestinian boy sat on rubble in an area that was destroyed during Israel's January 2009 Gaza offensive, in this photo taken Jan. 16.

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The Israeli military has reportedly disciplined two high-ranking officers for ordering the use of white phosphorus during its invasion of Gaza last year. The shells were fired at a UN compound and caused injuries to several within it, though Israel initially denied any use of the incendiary weapon.

The details emerged in a report Israel released over the weekend that detailed its own investigation into the conflict and dismissed many of the allegations made in a United Nations report on the war spearheaded by South African jurist Richard Goldstone. The Goldstone report, as it is known, found evidence of war crimes committed by both Israel and the Islamist movement in charge of the Gaza Strip, Hamas.

Among the war crimes Israel has been accused of committing in last year’s Gaza offensive, the use of white phosphorus munitions has been among the most controversial. The munitions are filled with felt soaked in the chemical that sticks to buildings and human flesh, and burns for an extended period of time. Inhalation of the fumes can also be hazardous. The Goldstone report noted that the military use of white phosphorus is not prohibited under international law, but criticized the way in which Israel had used it and the chemical's impact on Gaza residents.

Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland reports that many human rights groups have accused the Israeli army of illegally using the munitions throughout Gaza.

"When you bear in mind that a number of human rights groups identified what they described as a systematic, random and wide-ranging use of the chemical, the Israeli report just focuses on this one incident and two individuals being disciplined[,” said Mr. Rowland.] “But we have seen pictures from Gaza that hundreds of people were burned by white phosphorus during that military campaign a year ago.”

During last year's war, the Monitor reported on its effect on Gaza civilians. "We found small pieces of foreign material in [the woman's] body, and even when we picked it out, the wound was still smoking," the head of the burn unit of Gaza City's main public hospital told the Monitor during last year's war. "We were later told [by foreign doctors and human rights workers who arrived after the war started] that it was white phosphorus.

Initially, Israeli officials denied using white phosphorus in densely populated areas during the conflict, but this summer Israel admitted to using the controversial munitions, reports The Times of London. In Israel’s most recent report to the UN, it reportedly goes further, acknowledging widespread use of white phosphorus that resulted in injuring or killing many Palestinian civilians.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has pointed out that international law permits the use of white phosphorus and the munitions are used by Western militaries. On Monday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, the IDF denied that two high-ranking officers had been disciplined, contradicting Israel's weekend report, which had been prepared by the Foreign Ministry. The IDF had previously conducted its own investigation in which it found that no white phosphorus shells were fired in violation of orders and that they were only used in remote locations.

YNet News reports that official statements from the Israeli army did not specify the punishment for the Israeli officers – Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, the Gaza Division Commander, and Col. Ilan Malka – charged with exceeding their authority by ordering the use of white phosphorus. However, according to Reuters, Eisenberg still heads Israel's Gaza division and Malka now runs military operations in the West Bank under the same rank.

During the UN investigation of the Gaza incursion, Israel refused to cooperate with Goldstone and others involved in the inquiry. Though the report was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in November, Israel rejected the panel’s request that it launch an independent investigation to pursue possible criminal cases from the war, reports the Financial Times. Israel’s reaction caused significant damage to its image overseas, and this latest report is being seen by many as an attempt to improve international attitudes toward the nation.

The new report insists all the same that Israel has taken serious steps to scrutinise the army's conduct during the war. It says the Israeli military conducted probes of 150 incidents that took place during the conflict – significantly more than were investigated by Judge Goldstone and his colleagues. It points out that 36 of the 150 incidents have since given rise to criminal investigations, of which one has led to the indictment and conviction of a soldier.


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