March 14, 2010 / 3:46 PM / 10 years ago

INTERVIEW - Israel phasing out flechette tank shells

TEL HASHOMER, Israel (Reuters) - Israel is phasing out a U.S.-made tank shell that sprays thousands of deadly darts over a wide area, in favour of a more precise round produced locally, a senior army officer said on Sunday.

File photo of doctor Mouaweya Hassanein holding a "flechette" in the Gaza city hospital March 11, 2003. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro/Files

With their 300-metre kill zone, “flechette” shells fired in congested Palestinian areas, as well as in Lebanon, have caused frequent civilian casualties and attracted international condemnation.

Flechettes were used during Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip 15 months ago and enough of them remain in store for several years’ worth of training and operations, but no more would be bought, said Brigadier-General Agay Yehezkel, commander of the Armoured Corps.

“We’re phasing them out,” he said in an interview. “It’s a matter of opting for a shell that performs better, with obvious humanitarian benefits.”

Yehezkel said flechettes would be replaced by Anti-Personnel Anti-Materiel (APAM ) 105 mm and 120 mm shells manufactured by state-owned Israel Military Industries.

The APAM explodes directly above its target, showering it with a tight cluster of bomblets. By contrast, Yehezkel said, the 1.5-inch (3.75mm)-long flechette (French for “dart”) burst from its shell at a raking angle that could scatter thousands of them well beyond the main target.

He said the APAM would be more effective against guerrillas taking cover behind rocks than were flechettes, a weapon designed to counter infantry charging over open ground. They could also be also used to blow up lightly armoured vehicles, he said.

“The kill zone is much reduced, and focused,” Yehezkel said. “No one else has this kind of weapon.”

In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the use of flechettes be confined to areas “in which the danger to innocent civilians is not actual”. International experts, including a U.N. fact-finding panel on the Gaza war, dispute Israel’s assertions that enough precautions have been taken by its forces.

When an Israeli tank fired a flechette shell at a Reuters cameraman in the Gaza Strip in 2008, the darts killed not only the journalist, Fadel Shana, but eight other civilians walking on a road nearby. The army said its troops were justified in firing because they believed Shana’s camera might be a weapon.

Yehezkel spoke to Reuters at the military’s main induction base outside Tel Aviv, which reported a record number of draftees opting to spent their three years’ mandatory service in tanks.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Andrew Dobbie

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