12 deaths blamed on Israeli phosphorus shells

March 26, 2009|By Howard Schneider | Howard Schneider,The Washington Post

JERUSALEM -Israel's use of white phosphorus artillery shells led to the deaths of at least 12 Palestinian civilians and destroyed millions of dollars in property during the recent three-week war in the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch says in a report released Wednesday.

Israeli military officials called the claim "baseless" and said the shells, designed to produce a smoke screen, were used in accordance with accepted rules.

A frequent critic of Israeli military practices, New York-based Human Rights Watch says its review of the Gaza fighting found instances in which white phosphorus rounds were used in urban areas under circumstances that had no clear military rationale.

The watchdog organization calls it a violation of the international laws of warfare.

White phosphorus shells are used as an "obscurant" to hide troop movements or block an enemy's vision by distributing more than 100 burning, phosphorus-soaked pieces of felt across an area of perhaps 150 yards.

While widely employed by modern armies, their use has been criticized because the pieces of felt fall randomly and can set fires or cause deep and sometimes fatal burns if they land on a person.

The risk of such damage rises in urban settings, and the report concludes that the Israeli army did not follow proper precautions.

An Israeli spokesman said in a written statement that shells "were used for specific operational needs only and in accord with international humanitarian law."

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