The headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip was attacked today by Israeli artillery, sparking a fire which continues to burn. The compound was reportedly housing 700 civilian refugees and storehouses of increasingly scarce food aid at the time of the attack.
But perhaps even more pressing is the nature of the attack, which UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said was hit with shells containing the incendiary agent white phosphorus. “What more stark symbolism do you need?” asked the spokesman. “You can’t put out white phosphorus with traditional methods such as fire extinguishers. You need sand. We don’t have sand.”
Though Gunness says Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak termed the attack “a grave mistake,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert defended the attack, saying it made him sad but it was legitimate self defense. Israeli forces claimed the headquarters was being used by “militants” who were attacking the invading Israeli troops.
Israel has retroactively accused Hamas of being at the sites of several of their most serious incidents of attacking civilian targets, but has generally been light on evidence to back up those claims. In an attack on a United Nations girls’ school full of civilians last week, the Israeli military claimed to have video evidence, which later turned out to be a YouTube video over a year old from a different school in a different city. Israel has repeatedly revised their story on that attack since the incident.
The latest attack has sparked yet another international outcry against Israel for its now 20 day old war on the Gaza Strip. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared the spiraling civilian death toll “unbearable,” while European Union Aid Commissioner Louis Michel was “deeply shocked and dismayed to learn of this incident.”
The use of white phosphorus as a weapon of war in civilian areas is banned under the Geneva Conventions’ Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, though Israel has repeatedly denied that it is doing so. Still, rising evidence is putting that story, like so many other official stories during this war, in serious doubt.
Below is a video from CNN covering the phosphorus fires at the compound.