Israel Faces ‘War Crime’ Charge for Use of White Phosphorus

January 22nd, 2009 - by admin

Amnesty International & Associated Press & International Herald Tribune – 2009-01-22 10:20:04

Israel Used White Phosphorus in Gaza Civilian Areas
Amnesty International

• Lumps of still smouldering white phosphorus found in Gaza City
• Amnesty International fact-finding team investigates white phosphorus use in Gaza City

GAZA CITY (19 January 2009) — The Israeli army used white phosphorus, a weapon with a highly incendiary effect, in densely populated civilian residential areas of Gaza City, according to indisputable evidence found an Amnesty International fact-finding team which reached the area last Saturday.

When white phosphorus lands on skin it burns deeply through muscle and into the bone, continuing to burn until deprived of oxygen.

Amnesty International’s delegates found still-burning white phosphorus wedges all around residential buildings on Sunday. These wedges were further endangering the residents and their property; streets and alleys are full of children playing, drawn to the detritus of war and often unaware of the danger.

The carrier shells which delivered the wedges were also still lying in and around houses and buildings. Some of these heavy steel 155mm shells have caused extensive damage to residential properties.

“Yesterday, we saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army,” said Christopher Cobb-Smith, a weapons expert who is in Gaza as part of the four-person Amnesty International team.

“White phosphorus is a weapon intended to provide a smokescreen for troop movements on the battlefield,” said Cobb-Smith. “It is highly incendiary, air burst and its spread effect is such that it that should never be used on civilian areas.”

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty’s researcher on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories said that such extensive use of this weapon in Gaza’s densely populated residential neighbourhoods is inherently indiscriminate. “Its repeated use in this manner, despite evidence of its indiscriminate effects and its toll on civilians, is a war crime,” she said

When each 155mm artillery shell bursts, it deploys 116 wedges impregnated with white phosphorus which ignite on contact with oxygen and can scatter, depending on the height at which it is burst (and wind conditions), over an area at least the size of a football pitch. In addition to the indiscriminate effect of air-bursting such a weapon, firing such shells as artillery exacerbates the likelihood that civilians will be affected.

“Artillery is an area weapon; not good for pinpoint targeting. The fact that these munitions, which are usually used as ground burst, were fired as air bursts increases the likely size of the danger area,” said Chris Cobb-Smith.

Among the places worst affected by the use of white phosphorus was the UNRWA compound in Gaza City, at which Israeli forces fired three white phosphorus shells on 15 January. The white phosphorus landed next to some fuel trucks and caused a large fire which destroyed tons of humanitarian aid.

Prior to this strike, the compound had already been hit an hour earlier and the Israeli authorities had been informed by UNRWA officials and had given assurance that no further strikes would be launched on the compound.

In another incident on the same day a white phosphorus shell landed in the al-Quds hospital in Gaza City also causing a fire that forced hospital staff to evacuate the patients.

Israelis to probe misuse of phosphorous
Associated Press

(January 22, 2009) — Israel’s military said Wednesday it will investigate charges that its forces used phosphorous shells in a way that burned civilians during the fighting in Gaza, which human rights groups say should be considered a violation of international law.

Palestinian witnesses and doctors said victims were burned, some severely, when Israeli soldiers fired phosphorous shells at houses.

Although the use of phosphorous weapons to light up the night or to create smokescreens masking troops is permitted by international law, Amnesty International has accused Israel of committing a war crime by firing the munitions in densely populated areas.

Because of the scope of destruction and the number of deaths and injuries during Israel’s offensive, several groups have announced plans to pursue war crimes charges against Israel.

A Palestinian human rights group said it had completed its count of the death toll from the Israeli operation, putting the number of dead Palestinians at 1,284 – with 894 of those civilians, including 280 children or teenagers.

The Israeli military says 500 Palestinian militants were killed. Gaza’s militant groups say they lost 158 fighters.

Thirteen Israelis also were killed, 10 of them soldiers.

© 2009 Associated Press

Israeli Use of Phosphorus Shells under Investigation
Ethan Bronner / International Herald Tribune

GAZA (January 21, 2009) — In early January, a week into Israel’s war in Gaza, the home of Sabah Abu Halima was hit by an Israeli shell. The matriarch of a farming family in the northern area of Beit Lahiya, Abu Halima was caught in an unspeakable inferno that ended up killing her husband and four of their nine children.

But as she lay on the third floor of an annex to Shifa Hospital here Wednesday, bandaged all over and in terrible pain, it was less the magnitude of her loss than the source of the fire that was drawing attention, not only from her doctors but from international human rights organizations and even the Israeli military.

Her family was hit by a phosphorus shell, which would likely violate international law. The Israeli military issued a short statement saying it had opened an investigation into whether its forces had improperly used phosphorus weapons.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International said it found “indisputable evidence of widespread use of white phosphorus in densely populated residential areas in Gaza City and in the north.”

In a statement, it added that its investigators “saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army.” It called such use a likely war crime and demanded a full impartial investigation.

Abu Halima said that when her family was hit, “fire came from the body of my husband and my children. The children were screaming, ‘fire, fire,’ and there was smoke everywhere and a horrible, suffocating smell. My 14-year-old cried out, ‘I’m going to die. I want to pray.’ I saw my daughter-in-law melt away.”

She said that when her neighbors saw her and her family burning they were so afraid that they all fled.

Dr. Nafez Abu Shaban, head of Shifa’s burn unit, said the burns that he treated on the Abu Halima family were of a kind he had never seen before, reaching to the bone and muscle.

“They were deeper and wider than anything I had seen, a bad odor came from the wounds and smoke continued to come out of them for many hours,” he said as he sat in his office around the corner from Abu Halima’s sickbed, a chart on his desk entitled “Estimating Severity of Burn Wounds.”

He added, “We took out a piece of foreign matter that a colleague identified as white phosphorus.”

Shaban said dozens of such cases came to Shifa during the war and his unit was unprepared for how to handle them. Many have been sent to Egypt and abroad from there. In a few cases, he said, seemingly limited burns led to the patients’ deaths. The doctors discovered that the best way to deal with such phosphorus burns was to get the patients immediately into surgery and clean the area thoroughly. But that was learned only after it was too late for some. Initial attempts to dress phosphorus burns like normal ones made them worse.

The phosphorus weapons used by Israel are mostly 155-millimeter shells normally used to spread a thick white smoke to screen military actions. They contain more than 100 pieces of felt soaked in phosphorus that when shot into the air can land on people and cause intense burning, according to Chris Cobb-Smith, who spent 20 years in the army and is in Gaza as part of Amnesty International’s investigative team.

The phosphorus is used both to ignite and to add a whiter color when they hit the ground for better cover and to mark targets.

The Haaretz newspaper said Wednesday that the military’s probe into the phosphorus weapons also included 81- and 120-millimeter shells, but a military spokesman would not immediately confirm that.

It added that the investigation was focusing on a reserve brigade that fired about 20 such shells in the area where Abu Halima lived, Beit Lahiya. The investigation is being led by Colonel Shai Alkalai, an artillery officer.

Haaretz said that about 200 such shells were fired during the fighting, nearly all of them at orchards in which gunmen and rocket-launching crews were taking cover.

The article added that the 120-millimeter phosphorus shells were a recent acquisition. It quoted commanders as saying they had been effective but were apparently also responsible for the strike on a UN school that killed two people and a friendly fire incident that wounded two Israeli officers.

Copyright © 2009 The International Herald Tribune |