IDF to remove most white phosphorus from arsenal

Following wave of international criticism and petition to High Court, IDF decided “to go beyond what is required by the law.”

White phosphorus bombs exploding over Gaza city  (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
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 Report.
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 commanders.
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.
In 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.
Sfard told 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 policy.
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.