(Adds Israeli army comment, paragraph 8)
By Luke Baker
JERUSALEM, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Human rights group Amnesty International accused Israel of war crimes on Monday, saying its use of white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas of Gaza was indiscriminate and illegal.
White phosphorus is a high-incendiary substance that burns very brightly and for long periods. It frequently is used to produce smoke screens, but can also be used as a weapon, producing extreme burns if it makes contact with skin.
"Such extensive use of this weapon in Gaza’s densely populated residential neighbourhoods is inherently indiscriminate," Donatella Rovera, a Middle East researcher with Amnesty International, said in a statement.
"Its repeated use in this manner, despite evidence of its indiscriminate effects and its toll on civilians, is a war crime," she said.
Use of white phosphorus is not prohibited under international law, but the indiscriminate use of any weapon in an area crowded with civilians could be used as the basis to make war crimes charges, legal experts have said.
Israel said last week all weapons used during its three-week offensive in Gaza complied with international law, but said it would carry out an internal investigation into white phosphorus following claims of its use by rights groups.
"In response to the claims ... relating to the use of phosphorus weapons, and in order to remove any ambiguity, an investigative team has been established in southern command to look into the issue," the Israeli army said.
In response to Amnesty’s accusations, a military spokesman said on Monday the army "uses weapons in compliance with international law, while strictly observing that they be used in accordance with the type of combat and its characteristics."
Amnesty is not the first group to accuse Israel of using white phosphorus — Human Rights Watch made the accusation on Jan. 10, in the midst of the fighting, and the United Nations also said it believed the munition had been used.
But Amnesty’s accusations were made on the basis of an on-the-ground study by a British weapons expert following the ceasefire put into force by Israel and Hamas on Sunday.
Weapons expert Chris Cobb-Smith, who visited Gaza as part of a four-person Amnesty team, said he had found widespread evidence of the use of the incendiary material.
"We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still-burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army," he said in a statement.
"White phosphorus is a weapon intended to provide a smokescreen for troop movements on the battlefield. It is highly incendiary, air burst and its spread effect is such that it should never be used on civilian areas," he said.
Among the places worst-affected by use of white phosphorous was the U.N. Relief and Works Agency compound in Gaza, Amnesty said. Israel shelled the compound on Jan. 15, causing widespread damage. The U.N. at the time accused Israel of using white phosphorus, but the Israeli army refused to comment.
Israel faces potential claims in international courts for its actions in Gaza, where it launched an attack against Hamas on Dec. 27, with the stated aim of stopping the Islamist group from firing rockets and mortars into Israel.
Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said on Monday she was "at peace" with the actions Israel had taken during the conflict, but also said the nation should be prepared to fend off international accusations of war crimes.
(Reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by )