Human Rights Watch: Israel Used White Phosphorus Against People of Gaza

By Kenneth J. Theisen
On Wednesday, March 25th Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a 71-page report that provides eye witness accounts of the devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on Palestinian civilians and their property during Israel’s recent war against Gaza. After the war ended, HRW
researchers in Gaza discovered spent white phosphorus shells, canister liners, and dozens of burnt felt wedges containing white phosphorus on city streets, apartment roofs, residential courtyards, and even at a United Nations school. The HRW report presents ballistics evidence, photographs, and satellite imagery, as well as documents from the Israeli military and government.
According to the report, Israel's repeated firing of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza during its recent military campaign was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes. (The report is entitled, "Rain of Fire: Israel's Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza”)
White phosphorus has dual uses in war. It can be used to obscure military ground operations by creating thick smoke or a so-called smoke screen. But it can also be used as an incendiary offensive weapon.
According to Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report, "In Gaza, the Israeli military didn't just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops. It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren't in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died."  The report documents a pattern or policy of white phosphorus use that HRW claims must have required the approval of senior military officers.
Abrahams stated, "For the needless civilian deaths caused by white phosphorus, senior commanders should be held to account.”
The report describes how Israeli forces frequently air-burst white phosphorus in 155mm artillery shells in and near populated areas in Gaza. The air-burst would then spread 116 burning white phosphorus wedges in a radius extending up to 125 meters from the blast point. It is a formidable and deadly weapon. White phosphorus ignites and burns on contact with oxygen, and continues burning at up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit until nothing is left or the oxygen supply is cut. When white phosphorus comes into contact with skin it creates intense and continuing painful burns.
Under international law, when used “properly” in open areas, white phosphorus munitions are not illegal. But the HRW report concludes that the Israeli Army repeatedly exploded it unlawfully over populated neighborhoods, killing and wounding civilians and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse, and a hospital.
The Israelis knew the deadly effects of using white phosphorus in Gaza. The Israeli ministry of health prepared a report during the war that stated white phosphorus "can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed." According to the health ministry report, burns on less than ten percent of the body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart. The report indicated that infection is common and the body's absorption of the chemical can cause serious damage to internal organs, as well as death.
The U.S government is complicit in any war crimes committed by Israel in its use of white phosphorus. It appears that the white phosphorus shells used by the Israeli military were produced in the U.S. HRW found that shells were manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at that time. On January 4, Reuters photographed Israeli artillery units handling phosphorus shells whose markings indicate that they were produced in the U.S. at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in September 1991. This should not surprise anyone as the U.S. has provided Israel billions of dollars in military aid over the last 6 decades. Israel has then used these weapons and munitions to attack its neighbors.
HRW contends that if Israel had intended to use the shells for smoke screens that it could have used safer available alternatives which are actually manufactured in Israel. It appears that Israel deliberately used the shells as an offensive lethal weapon. The use of white phosphorus against military targets is regulated under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). Although Israel is not party to this treaty, customary laws of war prohibit the anti-personnel use of incendiary weapons so long as weapons less likely to cause unnecessary suffering are available. But Israel did not use alternative shells that it manufactured.
Israel is well aware of the controversy over the use of white phosphorus. That is why Israel initially denied even using white phosphorus. On January 7, an IDF spokesman told CNN, “I can tell you with certainty that white phosphorus is absolutely not being used.” Only later when it was presented with irrefutable evidence did Israel admit it was using it, and then it claimed it was used for smoke screening purposes only.
But even if this is true, its use in a highly populated area such as Gaza is a war crime. International humanitarian law requires belligerents to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. The use of air-bursting white phosphorus projectiles, which spreads the burning wafers over a wide area, thereby increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects is inexcusable.
Israeli military forces are aware of the international law implications. In a 1998 Israeli military manual it is stated, “Incendiary arms are not banned. Nevertheless, because of their wide range of cover, this protocol of the CCW is meant to protect civilians and forbids making a population center a target for an incendiary weapon attack. Furthermore, it is forbidden to attack a military objective situated within a population center employing incendiary weapons. The protocol does not ban the use of these arms during combat (for instance, in flushing out bunkers).”
HRW is demanding that Israel and the U.S. investigate the use of white phosphorus in Gaza. Israel’s use of white phosphorus needs to be investigated, but not by the proverbial fox who is left to guard the henhouse. Any investigation must be independently conducted. Israeli leaders and their enablers within the U.S. government then must be held accountable for any and all war crimes committed in Gaza by Israeli forces.