Reuters, March 25, 2009 - The Israeli army unlawfully fired white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip during its recent military offensive, needlessly killing and injuring civilians, U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
Citing Israel's use of white phosphorus as evidence of war crimes, the group said the army knew the munitions threatened the civilian population but "deliberately or recklessly" continued to use them until the final days of the Dec. 27 - Jan. 18 operation "in violation of the laws of war."
It called on senior Israeli military commanders to be held to account, and urged the United States, which supplied the shells, to conduct its own investigation.
The Israel Defense Forces have announced an internal probe, the results of which have yet to be made public.
White phosphorus ignites on contact with oxygen and continues burning at up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Celsius) until none is left or the oxygen supply is cut. It is often used to produce smoke screens, but can also be used as a weapon, producing extreme burns if it makes contact with skin.
When used in open areas, white phosphorus munitions are permissible under international law.
But Human Rights Watch said Israel "unlawfully" fired them over populated neighborhoods, killing and wounding civilians and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a hospital.
In Gaza, the Israeli military didn't just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops," said senior Human Rights Watch researcher Fred Abrahams. "It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren't in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died."
The group gave no precise casualty figures, citing the difficulty of determining in every case which burn injuries were caused by white phosphorous.
Human Rights Watch researchers found spent shells, canister liners, and dozens of burnt felt wedges containing white phosphorus on city streets, apartment roofs, residential courtyards and at a United Nations school.
The report documented several attacks involving white phosphorus, including one on January 4 that killed five members of Ahmad Abu Halima's family in northern Gaza, saying it found remnants of the substance at their home.