IDF probe: White phosphorus use legal

Deputy chief of staff: Findings show not one case of soldier targeting innocent civilians during Gaza op.

Gaza rubble 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Gaza rubble 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The IDF made several "intelligence and operational mistakes" during Operation Cast Lead that cost civilian lives, but overall operated in accordance with international law and in an ethical and professional way, Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel said on Wednesday. He was presenting findings from five separate probes into the operation. Following the 22-day offensive in January, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi appointed five colonels to lead investigations into a number of allegations made against the IDF. One probe focused on claims that the army targeted United Nations facilities and vehicles, while another looked into alleged attacks against Palestinian medical facilities, teams and vehicles. A third probe focused on several alleged attacks against innocent Gazans; another investigated the IDF's use of white phosphorus weaponry and the fifth examined the damage caused to infrastructure and Palestinian homes by ground forces. The overall conclusion was that the army operated in accordance with international laws and made great efforts to minimize civilian casualties, Harel said. The probes also uncovered a number of cases in which the IDF made mistakes in the midst of the fighting that led to the deaths of several dozen innocent Palestinians. "These are unfortunate but inevitable events that happen during a conflict," Harel said. "Especially in the type of fighting that Hamas forced upon the IDF when it chose to take shelter and fight in the midst of a civilian population." Among the "intelligence and operational mistakes" was the bombing on January 6 of the Dawiya family home in the Zeitoun neighborhood in southern Gaza City, in which 21 people were reported killed. The probe, conducted by former Golani Brigade commander Col. Tamir Yidai, discovered that an intelligence mistake led the air force to target the wrong building. The army had received intelligence on a home two buildings down the block from the Dawiya house that was storing weaponry for Hamas. The IDF even called the correct home to warn the residents to evacuate it before the bombing. The next step included dropping a warning munition on the roof of the building, but the IAF was given the wrong coordinates and dropped the munition on the Dawiya house and then bombed it. The IDF explained that the incident was regretful but was something that could happen in the middle of a conflict. The IDF identified 1,166 Palestinians who were killed during the Gaza operation, of whom 709 were Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, Harel said. In addition, 295 of the dead were women, children and elderly people, while the remaining 162 were men between the ages of 16 and 45 who were not identified as affiliated with a terrorist organization. While there are still some 70 teams probing various IDF units, Harel said that to date the military had not found a single incident in which an Israeli soldier purposely aimed and fired at innocent civilians. "We have not found even one case of a soldier targeting innocent civilians during the operation," Harel said. "The investigations continue and if we will find a case it will be dealt with harshly." As reported in The Jerusalem Post, far fewer Palestinians were killed by an IDF mortar attack against a Hamas terrorist cell near a UN compound in Jabalya on January 6 than was originally reported. Palestinians claimed that more than 40 people were killed. The army investigation revealed that 12-17 people were killed and that at least five of them were Hamas terrorists who had fired mortars at IDF troops. Regarding the IDF's use of white phosphorus during the operation, which drew international condemnation and accusations that Israel was committing war crimes, a probe discovered that in all cases it was used in accordance with international law. White phosphorus was used in a type of shell fired by mortar squads, as well as by the navy, which fired a 76 mm cannon that every few rounds also fires a white-phosphorus shell to help track targets. In addition, the IDF fired some 3,000 155 mm artillery shells - which looked like exploding octopuses in the air - that are not white-phosphorus weapons and are used exclusively to create smoke to screens troop movements. The probe, conducted by artillery officer Col. Shai Alkalai, revealed that white phosphorus weapons were used strictly in open fields and not in urban centers. The weapon was also not used against terrorists, but for marking and ranging when the forces targeted Kassam rocket cells operating in open areas. The IDF said it knew of only one case when white phosphorus was used for its burning capacity. That incident also took place in an open field, to burn away shrubbery and uncover tunnel openings. The army said that the use of the weapon in that incident was also in line with international regulations. While the IDF was not required to, on January 7, the General Staff decided to stop using white phosphorus. Alkali discovered three instances where forces continued to use the weapon despite the order - but this was because these units had not yet received the new directive. Once they did, use of the weapon was halted. The IDF said it would reconsider the use of white phosphorus in a future conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Following the released of the findings, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the "investigations proved again that the IDF is among the most moral militaries in the world. "We express regret for every civilian casualty, but we must stress that the exclusive responsibility for this lies with Hamas," he said. Human rights groups were highly critical of the investigations. Ten Israeli organizations said the results were "very problematic. Military investigation results published today refer to dozens of innocent Palestinian civilians killed by 'rare mishaps' in Gaza during 'Operation Cast Lead,'" the statement read. "However, data collected by Israeli human rights organizations shows that many civilians were killed in Gaza not due to 'mishaps' but as a direct result of the military's chosen policy implemented throughout the fighting. The only way to investigate violations of human rights committed in Gaza is by establishing an external, extra-military investigation mechanism."