IDF Denies Disciplining Top Officers Over White Phosphorous Use in Gaza War

Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday denied that two of its senior officers had been summoned for disciplinary action after headquarters staff found that the men exceeded their authority in approving the use of phosphorus shells during last year's military campaign in the Gaza Strip, as the Israeli government wrote in a recent report.

In an official response provided to the United Nations over the weekend in response to last September's Goldstone Commission report, the government said that a brigadier general and another officer with the rank of colonel endangered human life during by firing white phosphorous munitions in the direction of a compound run by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

The government finding aknowledges, at least in part, allegations by international organizations.

But the IDF on Monday flatly denied that Division Commander Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg and Givati Brigade Commander Col. Ilan Malka been subject to disciplinary action by GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant. It did not deny that the munitions were in fact used during the war, however.

The incident in question occurred on January 15 of last year, two days before the end of Operation Cast Lead, in the southern Gaza City neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa, at a time when the Givati brigade and other Israeli forces were in the area.

In the course of engagement with a Hamas squad, which according to IDF intelligence possessed advanced anti-tank missiles, it was decided to use phosphorus smoke munitions to create cover that would make it harder for the Hamas fighters to see the IDF soldiers.

According to Israeli intelligence, the Hamas forces were stationed in a commanding location from which they could easily see the soldiers and the UNRWA compound that was located between the Israeli forces and the Hamas position.

The munitions disperse hundreds of pieces of felt impregnated with phosphorus and at least some of the pieces fell into the UNRWA compound, causing injury to an UNRWA employee there as well as to two Palestinian civilians who took cover at the location.

Many human rights organizations said that the IDF had illegally used the phosphorus munitions, which are shot from 155 mm. cannon, and that the material caused many burn injuries among the Palestinian population. The IDF responded that the munitions were permitted under international conventions and that similar shells are in use by other Western armies. The army also contended that the munitions were used in locations remote from heavily -populated areas.

With the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi ordered the convening of five special investigative committees each headed by an officer with the rank of colonel to examine some of the serious allegations leveled against the army. One of the committees examined the use of phosphorus shells.

After three months, at the end of April of last year, then deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. Dan Harel presented the committees' findings and with respect to phosphorus munitions said that they had found no instances in which shells were fired in violation of orders and in any event, they were fired in open areas.

Nonetheless, the report that the Israeli government gave to the United Nations last Friday explicitly states that the two senior officers were disciplined after one of the investigating committees noted among its findings that they approved the firing of phosphorus shells at Tel al-Hawa "exceeding their authority in a manner that jeopardized the lives of others."

The report to the UN also says that Ashkenazi recently ordered the convening of a sixth committee to examine additional allegations made against the IDF as well as an incident which one of the previous panels had been unable to thoroughly probe.

The investigative teams have been looking into only the most serious and prominent of the allegations made as a result of Cast Lead. This is in addition to military police probes that were carried out, or are still in progress, into about 150 alleged incidents of improper conduct on the part of soldiers involving civilians and Palestinian property during the Gaza campaign.

Some of the incidents were raised in operational IDF debriefings held after Cast Lead, but most came to light following complaints by human rights organizations, individual Palestinian civilians and press reports. Twelve incidents were raised for the first time in the Goldstone Commission report, which was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council.

In the course of the IDF investigations, about 500 soldiers were questioned and nearly 100 Palestinian civilians were interviewed at the Erez checkpoint on the Israel-Gaza border. As a result of the IDF's investigations, 36 criminal investigation files have been opened so far, but criminal legal proceedings have so far been opened in only one case, in which two Givati brigade soldiers were convicted of stealing a Palestinian civilian's credit card.

Dershowitz: Goldstone is a traitor to the Jews

Prominent political commentator and pro-Israel campaigner Professor Alan Dershowitz slammed jurist Richard Goldstone, the architect of a UN report which accuses Israel of Gaza war crimes, calling him a traitor to the Jewish people, Army Radio reported yesterday. Dershowitz and Goldstone were colleagues and close friends for many years before the UN Gaza probe, but once Goldstone published his report the ties between the two were severed. (Haaretz Staff)