UN accuses Israel over phosphorus 
The head of the UN aid agency in Gaza has accused the Israeli military
of firing what was believed to be white phosphorus shells at its
John Ging told the BBC
that in spite of discussions with the Israeli liaison, "three rounds
that emitted phosphorus" hit a corner of the Gaza City facility. 
Israel's military said all weapons it used complied with international law. 
Phosphorus shells are legal to use as a battlefield obscurant, but are banned 
from use where civilians may be harmed. 
Human Rights Watch says it has observed "dozens and dozens" of white
phosphorus shells being fired by Israel at the Gaza Strip - a heavily
populated civilian area where its use is prohibited. 
Palestinian medical officials said they had treated large numbers of
casualties with unusual burns that were extremely painful to treat and
could be consistent with exposure to white phosphorus (WP). 
The Israeli military has declined to comment on
specific munitions used during the 20-day offensive, but said any its
weapons were used in compliance with international law. 
There is no way independently to explain the
contradiction between both sides' reports, as Israel has prevented
international journalists from entering Gaza since its offensive began
on 27 December. 
'Relentless bombardment'  
In an interview with the BBC, Mr Ging, director of operations in Gaza
for the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), said the area surrounding
its compound had been under "relentless artillery and tank bombardment
all night and all day". 
Some rounds, Mr Ging said, had struck a part of the
compound where about 700 residents of nearby blocks of flats were
taking shelter. Three people were injured in the bombardment. 
"Then an hour later, in spite of our protests and real-time discussions
with the Israeli liaison, three rounds that emitted phosphorous struck
the other corner of the compound," he added. 
The compound is Unrwa's main distribution hub in Gaza
and Mr Ging said the shells set alight part of a warehouse in which
there were stored thousands of tonnes of food and medicine, and the
workshop area. 
The fires then threatened to engulf five fuel tankers,
which had been due to be sent out that morning, but could not leave
because it was too dangerous outside. 
"When the fires broke out, five of our brave staff
dashed down there and moved the trucks out of the area, so we avoided a
massive explosion," he said. 
Mr Ging told CNN the fire was very difficult to extinguish because the smoke 
from WP becomes toxic if water is used. 
Following the incident, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon - in Israel to
push for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip - expressed his "outrage" and
demanded a full explanation from the Israeli government. 
"The defence minister said to me it was a grave mistake
and he took it very seriously. He assured me that extra attention will
be paid to UN facilities and staff and this will not be repeated," Mr
Ban said. 
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the compound had been targeted after 
militants had opened fire from there. 
"It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place, but the
consequences are very sad and we apologise for it," he said. "I don't
think it should have happened and I'm very sorry." 
White phosphorus sticks to human skin and will burn right through to
the bone, causing death or leaving survivors with painful wounds which
are slow to heal. 
The international convention on the use of incendiary
weapons says it should not be used where there is a possibility of
hitting civilians. An Israeli military spokesman said it was
investigating the reports, but reiterated earlier assurances about the
legality of its weaponry. 
White phosphorus is permitted on the battlefield to make smoke screens
to allow troops to move undetected, and also to impede infrared
anti-tank weapons. 
But its use in the densely populated areas of central
Gaza City would be "unlawful", as it dispersal would be indiscriminate
and could put civilians at risk, says Human Rights Watch military
analyst Marc Garlasco. 
"The Israeli military may be using legal weapons, but
it is using the weapons in an illegal manner," Mr Garlasco told the BBC
News website. 
He said he had observed dozens and dozens WP shells
used by the Israeli army over Gaza since 27 December, both ground-burst
shells and air-burst, scattering distinctive burning lumps of
phosphorus which left white smoke trails. 
"We are absolutely certain this is white phosphorus,
this is the singular, unique visual signature of white phosphorus on
the battlefield. Not only have I seen it for myself but I have checked
with US artillery," Mr Garlasco added. 
Mr Garlasco also examined a press photograph which
showed a burning lump of matter in the UN compound. He said it
"definitely appeared" to be WP, but that the photo was not detailed
enough to say with complete certainty. 
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/01/15 18:26:46 GMT


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