JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s military unlawfully used white phosphorus during its three-week military operation in Gaza, a human rights group said.
The 71-page report by Human Rights Watch released Wednesday said the Israel Defense Forces used white phosphorus artillery shells in a "deliberate or reckless way," and that the use was "neither incidental nor accidental. It was repeated over time and in different locations."
White phosphorus is a chemical substance dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, rockets or mortars used primarily to obscure military operations on the ground. When it hits the ground or bursts in the air, the white phosphorus emits a dense white smoke that armies use to screen the movement of troops. Its use in open areas is permitted under international law, but air-bursting white phosphorus over populated areas is unlawful because it places civilians at unnecessary risk.
The report asserts that Israel was aware of the dangers of white phosphorus, but still chose not to use less dangerous smoke shells that it produced, and that it fired the artillery shells repeatedly over densely populated areas, causing civilian suffering and casualties.
Human Rights Watch reported that it found 24 spent white phosphorus shells in Gaza. The report looked at six cases in detail in which 12 civilians were killed and many more injured.
The organization cited Israel’s use of white phosphorus as evidence of war crimes.
In a statement released Wednesday, the IDF said its investigation into the use of phosphorus that was nearing its conclusion already showed that "the IDF’s use of smoke shells was in accordance with international law" and that the shells "were used for specific operational needs only."
The statement added, "The claim that smoke shells were used indiscriminately, or to threaten the civilian population, is baseless."
The assessment, however was "an intermediate response."
"At the conclusion of the investigation by the Chief of Staff, the main findings will be presented to the public," the statement said.