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Latest white phosphorus tale is Israel’s 4th

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Israel has announced that it has reprimanded two senior army officers for their role in an attack on a UN facility during last year’s Gaza offensive. Large amounts of fuel were stored in both underground and above-ground tankers at the facility, and 600-700 civilians were taking shelter there, so the risk of catastrophic civilian casualties was enormous; remarkably, there were no deaths and only three injured. However, a warehouse full of hundreds of tons of food and medicine was destroyed by fire, with untold effects on a desperate population.

Israel’s latest position, that two officers are to blame for "exceeding their authority," is just the newest entry in a series of shifting official explanations for the incident. Immediately after the attack, Israel struggled to get its story straight. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Ban Ki-moon the attack was a "grave error." Other Israeli officials, including then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, disagreed and justified the attack as a legitimate return of fire on Hamas militants operating from the vicinity of the compound. Three months later, in April, 2009, the Israeli military came up with a third version inconsistent with the first two: "The smoke projectiles [white phosphorus] were fired at an area a considerable distance from the UNRWA headquarters, and were not intended to cause damage to either person or property. However, it appears that fragments of the smoke projectiles did hit a warehouse located in the headquarters, causing it to catch fire."

So before this latest announcement, the attack on the UN facility was either a grave error (Barak), direct fire aimed at terrorists (Olmert), or a legitimate use of white phosphorus, not for attack but for concealment, that accidentally ignited the warehouse. Take your pick. Now, we are treated to yet a fourth claim, that two officers are to blame for ordering the attack without authority.

Israel’s pathetic efforts to find the "right" explanation sharply contrast with the Goldstone Report’s sober and thorough discussion of the same incident (pars. 543-595). The Mission members examined the physical and documentary evidence and found that at least three high explosive missiles and seven white phosphorous canisters hit the facility over a three-hour period. During that time, local UN officials repeatedly begged the Israeli military to stop, but to no avail (pars. 579-584). The Report reviewed and rejected Israel’s public defenses of its conduct, and concluded with typical restraint: "The question then becomes how specialists expertly trained in the complex issue of artillery deployment and aware of the presence of an extremely sensitive site can strike that site ten times while apparently trying to avoid it" (par. 578).

What lessons can we draw? The first and most obvious conclusion, one that hardly needed this additional proof, is that Israeli leaders and spokespersons will say whatever they think they can get away with at the moment. If one lie fails to convince or is exposed as false, try another. Perhaps the feature of the Goldstone Report that its detractors find most objectionable is its stubborn refusal to credit the implausible and contradictory pronouncements of Israeli officials. How dare they not believe our lies!

Second, despite Israel’s refusal to cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission, there is a wealth of public statements made by Israeli officials, both during the Gaza offensive and after, that Goldstone was able to draw upon. Israel’s consistent dishonesty was reasonably relied upon by the Mission to infer that Israel intended the damage it caused, that the immense destruction to civilian lives was deliberate. Third, the outcome of Israel’s latest investigation, undertaken under considerable pressure to make some response to the Goldstone Report, eliminates any question about Israel’s capability of genuinely investigating the conduct of its own military. For a sustained and coordinated attack with dangerous, even illegal munitions directed at a civilian facility with no military value, two army officers have been singled out for the marginal penalty of possibly experiencing diminished chances for promotion in the future. Punishment is intended to deter future misconduct, and it is hard to imagine that this pseudo-disciplinary action will make future, similar actions less likely.

David Samel

David Samel is an attorney in New York City.

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