Open criminal investigation into phosphorus shelling of UNWRA facility
B'Tselem has sent an urgent letter to the judge advocate general, Maj. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit, demanding that he immediately order a Military Police investigation into the circumstances of the firing of phosphorus shells at the UNWRA compound in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. This morning, the media reported that the commander of the Gaza division, Brig. Gen. Eyal Eizenberg, and the commander of the Givati brigade, Col. Ilan Malka, were disciplined for authorized the shelling. The report that Israel submitted to the UN last weekend omitted details of the incident, stating only that the two officers had been brought before disciplinary hearings for exceeding their authority in a way that endangered lives, by permitting shelling of populated areas, contrary to the army's regulations.
Firefighters at UNRWA compound after white phosphorus shelling. Photo: Reuters, 15 Jan. 2009.
A comprehensive investigation of the incident conducted by Human Rights Watch indicates that on the morning of 15 January 2009, the army began firing artillery shells at an UNWRA facility in which the headquarters of the entire organization's activities in the Middle East were located. At that time, 700 civilians who had fled from their homes had found shelter in the facility, which also housed storehouses containing food and medical supplies. Some of the shells contained white phosphorus and these started fires, which could very easily have spread to the facility's diesel fuel reserve and two full fuel tankers. This danger placed the large numbers of civilians sheltering there at grave risk. During the shelling, UNRWA workers, among them UNRWA Gaza director John Ging, placed dozens of calls with senior army officials, warning them of the immense danger to civilians and demanding that the firing cease.
The incident was particularly severe in that senior officers were well aware of the danger in continuing the shelling. Despite this knowledge, the army continued to shell the facility, starting fires and causing great damage. The danger to civilians was enormous, and the fact that no lives were lost in the incident is nothing short of a miracle. Disciplinary hearings are clearly not an adequate punitive measure to such a severe incident.
Israel not only covered up the details of the incident but also refrained from stating, in the report, why measures had been taken against those responsible for this particular event, although many lives were lost in dozes of similar incidents throughout the operation. Also, the report did not explain the decision to bring the two officers before disciplinary hearings, instead of opening criminal procedures against them.
The cover-up of this affair demonstrates, yet again, that the army cannot investigate itself. The government of Israel must appoint an independent team to investigate Israel's suspected violations of international humanitarian law in Operation Cast Lead. The team must be authorized to investigate not only officers and soldiers who took part in the operation, but also civilian officials who took part in shaping the policy of the operation.