by James Hider in Jerusalem and Sheera Frenkel in Gaza City
After weeks of denying that it used white phosphorus in the heavily populated Gaza Strip, Israel finally admitted yesterday that the weapon was deployed in its offensive.
The army's use of white phosphorus - which makes a distinctive shellburst of dozens of smoke trails - was reported first by The Times on January 5, when it was strenuously denied by the army. Now, in the face of mounting evidence and international outcry, Israel has been forced to backtrack on that initial denial. "Yes, phosphorus was used but not in any illegal manner," Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The Times. "Some practices could be illegal but we are going into that. The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is holding an investigation concerning one specific incident."
The incident in question is thought to be the firing of phosphorus shells at a UN school in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on January 17. The weapon is legal if used as a smokescreen in battle but it is banned from deployment in civilian areas. Pictures of the attack show Palestinian medics fleeing as blobs of burning phosphorus rain down on the compound.
A senior army official also admitted that shells containing phosphorus had been used in Gaza but said that they were used to provide a smokescreen.
The Ministry of Defence gave lawyers the task before the attack of investigating the legal consequences of deploying white phosphorus - commonly stocked in Nato arsenals and used by US and British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan - inside the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, and one of the most densely populated places in the world.
"From what I know, at least one month before it was used a legal team had been consulted on the implications," an Israeli defence official said. He added that Israel was surprised about the public outcry. "Everyone knew we were using it, and everyone else uses it. We didn't think it would get this much attention," he said.
Because Israel is not a signatory to the treaty that created the International Court of Justice in The Hague, it cannot be tried there. Any country that is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, however, can try to prosecute individuals who took part in the Gaza operation as culpable of war crimes.
Despite a denial when The Times first reported the use of white phosphorus, an army spokeswoman said yesterday that the military had never tried to cover up its deployment. "There was never any denial from the beginning," she said.
January 5 The Times reports that telltale smoke has appeared from areas of shelling. Israel denies using phosphorus
January 8 The Times reports photographic evidence showing stockpiles of white phosphorus (WP) shells. Israel Defence Forces spokesman says: "This is what we call a quiet shell - it has no explosives and no white phosphorus"
January 12 The Times reports that more than 50 phosphorus burns victims are taken into Nasser Hospital. An Israeli military spokesman "categorically" denies the use of white phosphorus
January 15 Remnants of white phosphorus shells are found in western Gaza. The IDF refuses to comment on specific weaponry but insists ammunition is "within the scope of international law"
January 16 The United Nations Relief and Works Agency headquarters are hit with phosphorus munitions. The Israeli military continues to deny its use
January 21 Avital Leibovich, Israel's military spokeswoman, admits white phosphorus munitions were employed in a manner "according to international law"
January 23 Israel says it is launching an investigation into white phosphorus munitions, which hit a UN school on January 17. "Some practices could be illegal but we are going into that. The IDF is holding an investigation concerning one specific unit and one incident"
Source: Times database
© 2009 The Sunday Times/UK