Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head UN probe of Israeli shelling in Beit Hanoun

Archbishop Tutu, who was an anti-Apartheid activist, and who later chaired the South African Human Rights Commission, has been named to head a team to go to Beit Hanoun and look into the 8 November shelling that the Israeli Government has said was a result of a technical error (see report below). The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on 15 November calling for this investigation. It is not yet clear whether Israel will agree to cooperate. The UN General Assembly in New York has also voted to conduct its own fact-finding into the events surrounding the shelling.

UN Team Confirms Israeli Use of Phosphorous Bombs in Lebanon

AP has reported that Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, has said that recent tests confirmed “the use of white phosphorus-containing artillery and mortar ammunition” by the IDF during the conflict. Steiner said, however, that the UN team found no evidence of use of depleted uranium or other radioactive material during Israel’s month-long attack on Lebanon that ended on August 14. Steiner said the UN team collected samples from September 30 to October 21; these samples were taken to three European laboratories for testing.

If phosporous is not banned by international conventions, it should be.

Norway and Switzerland paid for the month-long investigation in Lebanon. UNEP reports that “The decision to undertake a post conflict assessment follows a request in early August from the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment.” It is, of course, easier for UNEP to make its announcement confirming Israel’s use of phosphorous weapons in Lebanon this past summer, after Israel already admitted it.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on 22 October, in an article written by Meron Rapoport, that: “Israel has acknowledged for the first time that it attacked Hezbollah targets during the second Lebanon war with phosphorus shells. White phosphorus causes very painful and often lethal chemical burns to those hit by it, and until recently Israel maintained that it only uses such bombs to mark targets or territory. The announcement that the Israel Defense Forces had used phosphorus bombs in the war in Lebanon was made by Minister Jacob Edery, in charge of government-Knesset relations. He had been queried on the matter by MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz-Yahad) … Edery said: ‘The IDF made use of phosphorous shells during the war against Hezbollah in attacks against military targets in open ground’. Edery also pointed out that international law does not forbid the use of phosphorus and that ‘ the IDF used this type of munitions according to the rules of international law’. Edery did not specify where and against what types of targets phosphorus munitions were used.”

The Haaretz article also reported that: “Phosphorus has been used by armies since World War I. During World War II and Vietnam the U.S. and British armies made extensive use of phosphorus. During recent decades the tendency has been to ban the use of phosphorus munitions against any target, civilian or military, because of the severity of the injuries that the substance causes. Some experts believe that phosphorus munitions should be termed Chemical Weapons (CW) because of the way the weapons burn and attack the respiratory system. As a CW, phosphorus would become a clearly illegal weapon. International Red Cross is of the opinion that there should be a complete ban on phosphorus being used against human beings and the third protocol of the Geneva Convention on Conventional Weapons restricts the use of ‘incendiary weapons’, with phosphorus considered to be one such weapon. Israel and the United States are not signatories to the Third Protocol. In November 2004 the U.S. Army used phosphorus munitions during an offensive in Faluja, Iraq … Initially the U.S. denied that it had used phosphorus bombs against humans, but then acknowledged that during the assault targets that were neither civilian nor population concentrations were hit with such munitions. Israel also says that the use of incendiary munitions are not in themselves illegal”.  The Haaretz article on phosphorus use in warfare is here. l

The British newspaper The Independent reported on 23 October that “Israel has been accused by both the UN and human rights groups of firing up to four million cluster bombs into Lebanon during its war with Hizbollah, which ended in a UN-brokered ceasefire on 14 August. UN de-mining experts say up to one million of the cluster bombs failed to explode immediately and continue to threaten civilians, especially children who can mistake the ordnance for batteries or other small objects.” This article on Israel’s cluster bomb use in Lebanon in 2006 is here.

The Independent’s veteran correspondent Robert Fisk reported on 28 October that: “Israel has a poor reputation for telling the truth about its use of weapons in Lebanon. In 1982, it denied using phosphorous munitions on civilian areas – until journalists discovered dying and dead civilians whose wounds caught fire when exposed to air. I saw two dead babies who, when taken from a mortuary drawer in West Beirut during the Israeli siege of the city, suddenly burst back into flames. Israel officially denied using phosphorous again in Lebanon during the summer – except for ‘marking’ targets – even after civilians were photographed in Lebanese hospitals with burn wounds consistent with phosphorous munitions … Then on Sunday, Israel suddenly admitted that it had not been telling the truth. Jacob Edery, the Israeli minister in charge of government-parliament relations, confirmed that phosphorous shells were used in direct attacks against Hizbollah, adding that “according to international law, the use of phosphorous munitions is authorised and the (Israeli) army keeps to the rules of international norms”. Asked by The Independent if the Israeli army had been using uranium-based munitions in Lebanon this summer, Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: ‘Israel does not use any weaponry which is not authorised by international law or international conventions’. This, however, begs more questions than it answers.” Robert Fisk’s article in the Independent on Israel’s use of phosphorous weapons in Lebanon is here.

An excellent summary of reporting on white phosphorous, which illuminates how its use could be legal (for marking enemy positions, or masking of friendly troop movements), and how its use is not legal (when used as a weapon against human beings), see FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) Extra! of March-April 2006, Now It’s a Chemical Weapon, Now It’s Not: White phosphorus and the siege of Fallujah, also by Seth Ackerman is published here. .

In this report, Ackerman writes that: “On the excruciating effects of the substance, which burns the skin to the bone and cannot be extinguished with water, there’s little dispute: A New York Times article from the mid-1990s (3/22/95) explained that despite its ambiguous legal status, white phosphorous is one of “the worst chemical weapons” in existence, and noted that many of its civilian victims during World War II ‘were shot by German troops to end their suffering’.”

UN Looks into Deaths of 19 Palestinians in Beit Hanoun

A day after 19 Palestinians were killed in, or while fleeing, their homes at dawn in Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza, by Israel shelling, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) issued a statement about the attack in Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza, saying that: “All the evidence of the inquiry indicate that the Palestinian civilian casualties were caused by IDF artillery, and that the primary cause of the incident was a technical failure in the ‘Shilem’ System, which directs artillery fire. In light of the inquiry results, the Chief of Staff had instructed to halt all artillery fire aimed at the Gaza Strip until further technical, professional, and operational inquiries are completed“.

Some of the wounded Palestinians are being treated in Israeli hospitals.

The IDF statement added that: “The Chief of Staff expressed his regret for the civilian casualties as a result of the technical failure”

IDF Forces reportedly had pulled out of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza before the attack that hit a row of houses.

A statement was issued on in Geneva by the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, John Dugard, saying that: “On 25 June 2006 Israel embarked on a military operation in Gaza that has resulted in over 300 deaths, including many civilians; over a thousand injuries; large-scale devastation of public facilities and private homes; the destruction of agricultural lands; the disruption of hospitals, clinics and schools; the denial of access to adequate electricity, water and food; and the occupation and imprisonment of the people of Gaza. This brutal collective punishment of a people, not a government, has passed largely unnoticed by the international community. The Quartet, comprising the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and the Russian Federation, has done little to halt Israel’s attacks. Worse still, the Security Council has failed to adopt any resolution on the subject or attempt to restore peace to the region. The time has come for urgent action on the part of the Security Council. Failure to act at this time will seriously damage the reputation of the Security Council.”

The United States later vetoed a proposed Security Council resolution condemning the attack on Beit Hanoun.

It also voted against a related resolution in the United Nations General Assembly on 17 November, which passed by 156 votes — despite other negative votes also cast by Israel, Canada, Ivory Coast, and several Pacific island-states. This resolution asked the Secretary-General to send a fact-finding mission to Beit Hanoun and to report back within 30 days on the circumstances surrounding Israel’s shelling of the town. It also asked the Quartet (the United States, Russian Federation, European Union and United Nations) to look into taking steps to stabilize the situation.

Earlier, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva had voted to call for a UN investigation into the Israeli shelling of Beit Hanoun. UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour then made a five-day visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, including Gaza Strip. At the conclusion of her trip on 23 November, the High Commissioner said that civilians on both sides expressed a feeling of abandonment by the international community. Ms. Arbour urged that discussion of the crisis between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as action to address it, should take place within the context of international human rights law.