White phosphorus bombs exploding over Gaza city .
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
In a major change in military tactics, the IDF will mostly stop using white
phosphorus to create smoke screens during military operations, the state
attorney told the High Court of Justice on Monday.
Israel’s use of
white-phosphorus munitions during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead drew
international criticism and received special scrutiny in the Goldstone
While white phosphorus can be legally used under the laws of
armed conflict to mask troop movements on battlefields, Goldstone and many human
rights groups have criticized the IDF for using the substance in
densely-populated Gaza because it poses significantly increased fire risks in
such an environment.
Exposure to the substance can have particularly
grisly effects – including chemical burns down to the bone and wounds which can
reignite days later when bandages are removed – said HRW.
In the 2009
Gaza war, white phosphorous caused accidental damage to a UN facility and in one
instance, its misuse lead the IDF to self-discipline one of its
Following the wave of international criticism and a petition
to the High Court filed by Attorney Michael Sfard representing the Yesh Gvul
NGO, the IDF decided “to go beyond what is required by the law” and voluntarily
“limit” its future use of white phosphorous as a smokescreen tactic.
the hearing before the High Court, the state said that it was limiting the use
of white phosphorous voluntarily, and that it would only be allowed to be used
in two very limited cases, which it declined to specify in order to keep the
rules of engagement confidential.
Sfard and Attorney Emily Schaeffer
fought hard to go beyond the IDF’s new “limited” use policy and pushed the court
to flat-out prohibit the IDF from using it on the basis that it is too
dangerous, indiscriminate and uncontrollable once it is used.
The Jerusalem Post that he “praises the IDF’s change in policy,” which he
believed was at least partly as a result of the pressure from the petition, and
noted that the military would likely “not use white phosphorous... in future
hostilities to the extent it did during Operation Cast Lead.” But he also said
that the IDF’s exception to the policy was too broad.
As soon as
“hostilities broke out again,” Sfard said, the IDF was likely to decide to use
white phosphorous again, and that it would be both practically impossible and
too emotionally charged to try and go to court to get the IDF to stop and “tie
its hand in the middle of combat.”
Based on that prediction, he said, it
was “important for the High Court to prohibit white phosphorous now when things
are relatively calm.”
Sfard was pressed by the Post as to how he could
demand a complete prohibition when no international convention formally
prohibits the use of white phosphorous and when the substance is not explicitly
prohibited by many Western militaries.
He responded that while they do
not explicitly prohibit white phosphorous, many Western militaries do prohibit
weapons with “indiscriminate” impacts, adding that he believes few militaries
would actually use it today.
Sfard added that even when the US made use
of the chemical, it did not in the same manner as the IDF.
Unlike the US,
he said, the IDF used white phosphorous from the air, which renders it even less
accurate and more indiscriminate.
The court appeared wary of asking
anything more from the IDF, suggesting that the IDF had already voluntarily made
a substantial change in policy, and that the prohibition which Sfard was asking
for went even further beyond what the law requires.
Sfard was repeatedly
asked by the court if he would drop his petition in light of the IDF’s new
The court said it would announce a decision at a later date, but
it appeared unlikely to grant Yesh Gvul’s request for a complete prohibition.