UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A warehouse in a U.N. compound in Gaza that came under Israeli fire on Thursday was apparently hit by white-phosphorus shells, U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said.
It was the first public allegation by a senior U.N. official echoing an accusation by Human Rights Watch last week that Israel had used white phosphorus, which can be used an incendiary weapon as well as making smoke screens or marking targets.
“The main warehouse was badly damaged by what appeared to be white-phosphorus shells,” Holmes told reporters at a news briefing in New York. “Those on the ground don’t have any doubt that’s what they were. If you were looking for confirmation, that looks like it to me.”
Western officials say white phosphorus is not specifically banned, but a 1983 international convention prohibits the use of incendiary weapons against civilians.
“If they hit people, they cause appalling burns, and if they hit buildings they can set them on fire, which is why we are saying they should not be used in these circumstances, whether or not they are banned,” Holmes said.
Israel has refused comment on the munitions it is using in Gaza, but the Israeli army confirmed in 2006 that it had used phosphorus shells during its war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
The compound shelled on Thursday belongs to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA. A separate attack hit a vocational training center there, Holmes said. Three people were injured in the two attacks.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is visiting Israel over the Gaza crisis, which erupted on December 27 when the Jewish state attacked to stop rocket fire by Palestinian militants, expressed outrage over the shelling to Israeli leaders.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized to Ban but said the shelling responded to Palestinian fire.
Speaking by videolink from the shelled compound, John Ging, UNRWA’s director of operations in Gaza, said an Israeli liaison group had not alleged to the agency during a meeting in Tel Aviv that there were militants in the compound.
“There were militants operating, they allege, in the area, but there were no militants or any firing from our compound. That’s the official position of the Israeli authorities that deal with us,” Ging told reporters.
The U.N. Security Council was briefed on the shelling by the deputy head of the U.N. political department, Haile Menkerios, and its members expressed “grave concern” about the situation, said French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert.
“We are calling on all parties to respect humanitarian law and especially to ensure the protection of civilians,” Ripert, this month’s president of the council, said on its behalf.
The 15-nation council issued no written statement.
The 192-nation General Assembly opened a special session to discuss Gaza. Diplomats said the meeting was expected to issue a nonbinding resolution calling for implementation of a January 8 Security Council resolution urging an immediate ceasefire.
A majority of assembly members support the Palestinian cause and are critical of Israel. Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto dismissed Israeli objections that the meeting should not be held as the Security Council was tackling the issue.
D’Escoto, a Nicaraguan who in the past has accused Israel of “apartheid”, or racial segregation, said the assembly had to act as the council resolution had failed to achieve either a ceasefire or humanitarian access to Gaza.
Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour said if there was no ceasefire he would seek an enforceable council resolution to make Israel comply under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. The United States would be likely to veto any such resolution.
Editing by Chris Wilson