Sfard: IDF did not use white phosphorous during war following int'l pressure

Lawyer for Yesh Gvul says following past criticism and court petition, army ‘learned its lesson.’

Israeli armored personnel carrier (APC) near the border with the Gaza Strip. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli armored personnel carrier (APC) near the border with the Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite having maintained in the past that the use of white phosphorous in urban warfare is legal, the IDF did not use it at any point during the recent Gaza war, according to an NGO.
The IDF has declined either to confirm or deny any use of white phosphorous during the war.
In July 2013, the High Court of Justice recommended the IDF cease all use of white phosphorus for creating smoke screens during military operations.
The recommendation was non-binding, however, as the court recognized that the IDF’s current commitment to nearly eliminate its use in the urban warfare context and to reduce its use generally, moved the army’s position significantly toward that of petitioners Yesh Gvul, who had sought to block its use entirely.
In that vein, the court had approved two secret tactical situations, where the IDF could still use white phosphorous in an urban setting.
From July 2013 to July 2014 there was no opportunity to test what those two secret permitted situations were or whether the IDF’s position in the absence of hostilities would remain the same once battle resumed.
With the 50 day Gaza conflict that started in July, including a significant ground war phase, the IDF’s wartime position on the issue was put fully to the test.
Yesh Gvul’s lawyer, Michael Sfard, said recently that he had checked with the Justice Ministry during the Gaza war out of concern that the IDF’s stated policy change of reducing the use of white phosphorous might be reversed in the middle of hostilities.
Sfard received an official letter that there was no change in policy.
He said that his sources on the ground in Gaza confirmed that the IDF had not used the prohibited substance, whether for the two scenarios for which it had reserved its rights to use, or for any other purpose.
Asked why be believed the IDF had declined to use white phosphorous, while fighting hard in court to hold out for using it in certain secret scenarios, Sfard said it was a combination of factors including “international criticism” fueled by reports by Human Rights Watch and the Goldstone Report, as well as the push back the IDF got from the High Court in the petition he filed.
Sfard said the IDF must have concluded from the perspective of its own self-interest, that even if it had preserved some legal rights for using white phosphorous, the benefits of exercising them was not worth the cost.
Sfard said that whereas the IDF has often been determined not to change its major war doctrines due to international criticism, white phosphorous was a lower key weapon that could be replaced by other weapons or tactics.
Put differently, “they learned their lesson,” the lawyer said.
The IDF declined to comment on this issue as well.
Despite what many might call a victory for Sfard and the human rights community on white phosphorous, he still had harsh criticism for the IDF’s conduct during the Gaza war on a range of broader issues.
Regardless of what seems to be a firm IDF commitment not to use white phosphorous, if the IDF ever changed its mind, some argue it would have solid ground to stand on.
NGO Monitor in the past has stated that the US used white phosphorous in far more dangerous ways than the IDF (which it said never used the substance as an incendiary), causing far more civilian casualties in Iraq and without any concrete legal consequences.
While it never revealed what the two secret scenarios were, in past government reports, the IDF had admitted to the use of white phosphorous to uncover hidden tunnels from vegetation where there was no danger to civilians, and using it as a smokescreen to maneuver without being hit by enemy fire.
In a 2012 Human Rights Watch report on the issue, the organization said white phosphorous killed and wounded civilians and destroyed infrastructure both in Gaza and when the US used it in Afghanistan.
Exposure to the substance can have particularly grisly effects – including chemical burns down to the bone and wounds that can reignite days later when bandages are removed, said HRW.
In the 2008-9 Gaza war, white phosphorous caused accidental damage to a UN facility and in one instance its misuse lead the IDF to discipline one of its commanders.