Israel has admitted for the first time to “using munitions containing white phosphorus” during its offensive on the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009. But the Israeli government denied violating international law, claiming that such weapons were not fired into areas populated by civilians.
The admission came in an Israeli government report published Thursday, which confirmed earlier reports by the United Nations and several international human rights organizations. Those reports said that Israeli troops violated international law during the offensive.
A Human Rights Watch report released in March slammed Israel for firing white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas, including repeated attacks on the UN Relief and Works Agency headquarters in Gaza City.
Israel denied the report, saying its troops respected international law during the Gaza war.
The use of white phosphorus weapons to generate a smokescreen and cover troop movements is legally accepted, but the 1980 Geneva Convention forbids its use in densely populated areas.
Eyal Alimi, a Radio Israel journalist who has extensively covered Israeli military affairs, notes that Gaza's population density, one of the highest in the world, makes it difficult to avoid areas populated by civilians during military operations.
"In such conditions, how can we say there was no high concentration of civilians in these areas?" said Alimi.
Following a spate of reports by international rights groups questioning the legality of Israel's Gaza offensive, many analysts believe international laws dealing with asymmetrical urban warfare need to be updated.
"These international laws have been established for wars with an actual battlefield, where there is a clear front line between belligerents. But they'e not adapted for today's conflicts. Modern wars are fought in densely populated urban areas," said Alimi.
Critics of the offensive say that the use of phosphorus weapons in Gaza belies the Israeli military claim that it struggled hard to hit only Hamas targets and avoid civilian non-combatants. But distinguishing legitimate military targets is getting more difficult in urban guerilla warfare, where fighters are among the civilian population.
"The main problem is war tactics in urban areas, where there are no uniforms, no clearly defined bases, no obvious targets. Should we just give up? Or should we kill the targets and risk civilian casualties?" asked Gil Mihaely, the Paris correspondent for the Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth.
Reports of Israel's use of white phosphorus shells started emerging during the Gaza operation, when doctors in the Strip began noticing chemical burns among the injured. The official Israeli response to the reports was that the Israeli military was complying with international law. The use of white phosphorus shells was initially neither confirmed nor denied.
In its 163-page report, the Israeli government denied charges that white phosphorus shells killed Palestinian civilians.
"There appear to have been no documented deaths in Gaza resulting from exposure to white phosphorus itself," says a footnote in the report, which goes on to acknowledge that shell casings with phosphorus residue could have hurt some people and started fires. But "it does not appear that damage from this use can be regarded as excessive," said the report.
International rights groups say most civilians in Gaza were killed by F16 missiles, tank shells, heavy artillery and other "legal" weapons.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, more than 1,400 Palestinians, including 926 civilians were killed during the campaign. The civilian casualties included 313 children, according to the PCHR.
A March report by the Israeli Defence Forces, however, put the death toll at 1,166, of which 295 were civilians.