Israel 'to stop using white phosphorus shells'

Palestinians run as white phosphorus lands on a UN-run school in Beit Lahia (17/01/09) White phosphorus is extremely harmful if it comes into contact with the body

The Israeli military says it is to stop using artillery shells with white phosphorus to create smokescreens on the battlefield.

It says shells will be replaced with types based completely on gas, which will create the same effect.

Rights groups condemned Israel's use of white phosphorus during the Gaza conflict because of its severely harmful effects on civilians.

International law restricts the use of white phosphorus during war.

The Israeli military said the existing shells contained "minimal amounts" of white phosphorus, and would be "removed from active duty soon".

Three years ago, Israel promised to draw up new rules on the use of shells containing white phosphorus, in the wake of the Gaza war.

Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the three-week conflict.

During the offensive, Israel used white phosphorus rounds in densely populated areas, the UN and Human Rights Watch said.

Part of a UN compound burned down after it was hit by chunks of the burning chemical which ignites on contact with air.

White phosphorus

  • Spontaneously flammable chemical used for illumination or obscuring troop movements
  • Burns flesh down to the bone
  • Use as an incendiary weapon against civilians prohibited (Protocol III of Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons)

Human Rights Watch said Israel "deliberately or recklessly" used white phosphorus shells in violation of the laws of war, causing "needless civilian deaths".

Israel has insisted that its use of white phosphorus in the conflict was permitted under international law and that it sought to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths in Gaza.

As a weapon, white phosphorus is used to mark enemy targets and to produce smoke for concealing troop movements. It can also be used as an incendiary device against enemy positions.

Its effects however can be extremely harmful. If burning white phosphorus lands on a person's skin, it can go through to the bone. Toxic phosphoric acid can also be released into wounds, risking phosphorus poisoning.

A protocol to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons bans the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations or in air attacks against enemy forces in civilian areas.

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