Israel’s attack on the United Nations relief headquarters in Gaza and its use of toxic white phosphorus among civilians are drawing wide condemnation and increasing demands for an immediate cease-fire. Human rights groups say the Israeli actions violate international law.
The headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), housing numerous refugees and food and other relief supplies, was left in flames after an Israeli artillery attack yesterday.
The UK Times reported that shells hitting the UN compound in Gaza City contained white phosphorus, an incendiary that in 1980 was banned internationally for use as a weapon in civilian areas. (It is considered legal for military use as an illuminator or to create a smokescreen.) Neither the U.S. nor Israel signed onto that ban.
The Israeli military denied using white phosphorus in Gaza, but the Times said its own investigation “revealed that dozens of Palestinians in Gaza have sustained serious injuries from the substance, which burns at extremely high temperatures.”
Humanitarian organizations including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch said that they were ‘certain’ that Israel was using white phosphorus shells in Gaza. Human rights workers said that the use of phosphorus in densely populated Gaza City could constitute a war crime, the Times reported.
UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness strongly rejected Israeli claim that Hamas fighters were in the compound, the Times said. He pointed to a series of earlier Israeli attacks on UN relief facilities and personnel for which Israel made similar claims. ‘Their credibility is hanging in rags,’ he said.
Also on Thursday, an Israeli artillery shell hit a hospital administrative building, setting it on fire and trapping workers inside, the Washington Post reported.
‘For two hours the fire was burning, with heavy smoke,’ Ziad Kahlut, a doctor at the hospital, told the Post. He said conditions at the hospital were grim. ‘Our hospital is now overcrowded with the sick, the wounded, staff and some 300 civilians, many of them women and children, who are taking shelter,’ he said. ‘I do not know how long this can last.’
These attacks and a storm of international criticism came as Israeli unleashed its heaviest shelling on Gaza’s crowded neighborhoods since its assault on Gaza began Dec. 27. The Palestinian death toll is now above 1,100. A Gaza health official said the dead included 375 children, 150 women and 14 medical personnel, and said 5,000 people had been injured.
Thirteen Israelis are reported to have been killed, including three civilians.
Red Cross officials report Gaza civilians are “trapped and terrorized” as they tried to flee the Israeli assault, saying they “have nowhere to hide.”
‘People started turning up at our residence early in the morning, mainly women with children,’ said Ellen Verluyten, deputy head of the ICRC office in Gaza. ‘Most of them were in tears, devastated. Some were still wearing pajamas and slippers. Later on, I went out on the street and saw dozens of people running in panic.’
The agency reports its shelters are overwhelmed, with 45,000 people taking refuge there.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement Friday saying Israel’s use of heavy artillery in residential areas “violates the prohibition under the laws of war against indiscriminate attacks and should be stopped immediately.”
The group’s statement included a definition of “indiscriminate attacks” that are prohibited by international humanitarian law — the “laws of war” — that appear to closely match the Israeli actions in Gaza:
“Indiscriminate attacks are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. Examples of indiscriminate attacks are those that are not directed at a specific military objective or that use weapons that cannot be directed at a specific military objective. Prohibited indiscriminate attacks include area bombardment, which are attacks by artillery or other means that treat as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in an area containing a concentration of civilians and civilian objects.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who was in Israel to press for a cease-fire, told a Tel Aviv press conference Thursday that civilian suffering in Gaza had become ‘unbearable’ and that the territory was facing ‘a dire humanitarian crisis.’
In the U.S. a wide range of groups is calling for the U.S. to intervene strongly to get an immediate cease-fire.
Earlier this week, in Cambridge, Mass., the City Council passed a resolution calling for an immediate end to all attacks on civilians on both sides, and urging the U.S. government to press for: access for journalists who have been barred by Israel from Gaza; humanitarian aid; a cease-fire on both sides with international monitoring; a long-term truce and an end to the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and an increased flow of goods and people between Israel and Gaza; and a long-term negotiated peace, a two-state solution that acknowledges the right of Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and freedom
The resolution was drafted with support from the Cambridge Peace Commission. Organizers hope it will spur other cities and towns to take similar action.
Cambridge City Councillor Sam Seidel said the resolution was meant to indicate the need for a new direction regarding U.S. policy in the Middle East, the Harvard Crimson reported.
“Overall the last administration’s response to the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been a complete failure,” Seidel said. “It has been a consistent failure, and has put the parties involved and the U.S. in a worse position.”
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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more. Previously she taught English as a second language and did a variety of other jobs to pay the bills. She has lived in six states, and is all about motherhood, art, nature and apple pie.