AP, Editor & Publisher, Feb. 02, 2009
LITTLE ROCK The United States sold phosphorus artillery shells made at the Pine Bluff Arsenal to Israel — the same kind of rounds allegedly used against civilians during the recent fighting in Gaza.
A State Department official told The Associated Press that the rounds — typically used to light up darkened battlefields or provide smoke cover for combat troops — were most recently shipped to Israel in 2007. International human rights groups accuse the Israeli military of firing the chemical rounds into civilian homes, causing severe burns to those inside and killing at least one woman.
International law allows for the use of the phosphorus shells, but not in areas where civilians could be harmed by the burning rounds.
The Pine Bluff Arsenal, a 13,000-acre base near Little Rock that once housed some of the Army's deadliest chemical and biological weapons, advertises itself as the only plant in North America capable of manufacturing the white phosphorus rounds. A photograph published by the British newspaper The Times taken during the recent fighting showed rounds waiting to be fired with Pine Bluff Arsenal serial numbers.
The arsenal referred calls about the phosphorus rounds to the Pentagon. Lt. Col. Almarah Belk, a military spokeswoman, did not immediately return a request for comment Friday. Previously, the military has said it supports "Israel's right to defend itself" and declined to comment about specific arms sales.
The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity over the sensitivity of the issue, stressed that the white phosphorus rounds should only be used to "obscure, and thereby protect, troops and their movements." The official said the United States would take any unauthorized use of the rounds seriously and "would take appropriate, corrective action."
White phosphorus, a caustic chemical, ignites when it comes in contact with oxygen. During the Vietnam War, white phosphorus served as the ignitor in napalm bombs. Though the U.S. later eliminated its napalm stockpiles, white phosphorus illumination and smoke rounds remain a mainstay in the military's arsenal.
The 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons prohibits use of the substance as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations and in air attacks against military forces in civilian areas. However, neither Israel nor the U.S. signed onto that part of the international agreement.
In 2004, U.S. troops in Iraq used white phosphorous as a weapon against insurgent strongholds during the battle of Fallujah, Pentagon officials have said. The Pentagon denied troops used the rounds against civilians.
Amnesty International has issued a report about a shelling in a residential area of Gaza City, concluding that Israel used white phosphorus rounds improperly. Amnesty also said Israel used white phosphorus shells in an attack on U.N. warehouses in Gaza City on Jan. 15, an incident that infuriated U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Amnesty has accused Israel of committing a war crime by firing the munitions into densely populated areas.
Initially, Israel categorically denied that its use of phosphorous weapons was illegal. Later, the Israeli military said it will investigate the accusations made by the U.N. and human rights groups.