GROUND FORCES COMMAND BASE Israel (Reuters) - Israel fired almost five times more artillery shells into Gaza during the last month of fighting than in the 2008-2009 war there but did not use controversial white phosphorous this time around, an Israeli general said on Tuesday.
Criticized by human rights groups after the previous conflict for posing a burn risk to civilians by shelling the congested Palestinian enclave with white phosphorous to create smoke-screens, Israel said last year it was phasing out those rounds.
In the conflict with Hamas-led Palestinian guerrillas that erupted in July 8, Israeli gunners masked troop advances only with locally made M116 “gray smoke” rounds that contain no white phosphorous, artillery chief Brigadier-General Roy Riftin said.
“Smokescreens based on white phosphorous were certainly not used. We enforced this in an extreme fashion,” he said in an interview at ground forces headquarters in southern Israel.
Though Israel reprimanded two senior army officers over a 2009 strike near a U.N. compound in the Gaza Strip that involved smokescreen shells, Riftin saw no legal barrier to using white phosphorous. His corps plans to stock up on U.S.-supplied M825 rounds containing the incendiary chemical in reduced form.
White phosphorous was being shunned, for now, mainly because “it photographs badly”, Riftin said - a reference to the distinctive octopus-like clouds the shells formed over Gaza and ensuing showers of potentially lethal embers on civilian areas.
“When you have an alternative, you use the alternative. Had there not been an alternative, I’m convinced there would not have been an issue” with again using white phosphorous, he said.
Smoke produced by M116 shells disperses more quickly than white phosphorous smoke, so more of them had to be used, Riftin said, putting the number at around half of some 34,000 artillery rounds his corps fired into the Gaza Strip since July 8, as well as hundreds of camera-guided Tammuz ground-to-ground missiles.
By contrast, only 7,000 artillery shells were fired in the 2008-2009 war. Riftin said that, in the current fighting, heavier shelling with high-explosive rounds was required to dislodge Palestinian guerrillas who, though outgunned, were more effectively dug in and killed 64 Israeli troops in urban combat.
Gaza officials say 1,939 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died in Israel’s offensive - many of them in intensified bombardments that followed the suspected capture of soldiers by Hamas in two battles in northern and southern towns.
Riftin confirmed that on those occasions, as well as on a third where infantrymen reported being outflanked by guerrillas, his corps stepped up barrages to cover the evacuation of Israeli casualties and try to stop captives being taken away by Hamas.
“In the places where we had to protect our forces, because they were under huge risk, we did what was necessary,” he said.
Israel has caused widespread devastation its fight against militants in Gaza. According to the United Nations, at least 425,000 displaced people are in emergency shelters or staying with host families. Nearly 12,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged by Israeli attacks.
Palestinians have not reported human casualties from Israel’s smoke-screens during the recent fighting, though some penned-in livestock and birds died, apparently asphyxiated.
Israel said that during a few Gaza battles in 2009 its forces used weaponized white phosphorous to destroy brush-covered guerrilla trenches. Riftin said no such weapons were used this time around.
Unlike during Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, Riftin said his corps had not fired widely destructive cluster munitions or Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) into Gaza, given the dense Palestinian population there.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood