A war crime by any other name – Israel’s “shake and bake” attrocities

UNRWA Director John Ging said UNRWA’s headquarters — located in a densely populated neighborhood — was hit repeatedly by shrapnel and artillery, including white phosphorus shells — the use of which is restricted under international law.

“It looks like phosphorus, it smells like phosphorus and it’s burning like phosphorus,” Ging said. “That’s why I’m calling it phosphorus.” (CNN 16 Jan 2009)

Under international law, technically, white phosphorus (WP) is not banned as an “obscurant” – but the Israelis know full well that the “secondary” effects are deaths and horrific burns for anyone caught in the hot, burning rain.

Does the use of WP in Gaza constitute a war crime. I think it might.

The use of WP in Gaza is like the use of napalm in Vietnam – it is designed to frighten and disperse the civilian population and to render whole neighbourhoods “clean”. It’s also like the use of cluster bombs. The Americans call white phosphorus “shake and bake” when used in military attacks alongside conventional high-explosive weapons. Given the level of bombardment in Gaza and the Israeli military’s close links with the US, this is probably the tactic being used, despite denials, such as this.

“Israel appeared to be using white phosphorus as an ‘obscurant’ [a chemical used to hide military operations], a permissible use in principle” under the laws of war, the HRW posting said.

“However, white phosphorus has a significant, incidental, incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire,” the posting said. “The potential for harm to civilians is magnified by Gaza’s high population density, among the highest in the world.” (CNN 12 January)

The problem is that white phosphorus has a grey status under chemical weapons conventions. But its use is highly controversial. It was used in Iraq during the 2004 US assault on Fallujah and in that context it was a “lethal” weapon.

The chemical weapons law is unclear.

The CWC is monitored by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague. Its spokesman Peter Kaiser was asked if WP was banned by the CWC and he had this to say:

White phosphorous being used over Falluja

White phosphorous being used over Falluja


“No it’s not forbidden by the CWC if it is used within the context of a military application which does not require or does not intend to use the toxic properties of white phosphorus. White phosphorus is normally used to produce smoke, to camouflage movement.

“If that is the purpose for which the white phosphorus is used, then that is considered under the Convention legitimate use.
“If on the other hand the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.” (BBC 2005)

According to Common Dreams, “the fog of war”, the use of white phosphorus (WP) against civilians is expressly prohibited.

The use of incendiary weapons such as WP and napalm against civilian targets – though not military targets – is banned by international treaty. Article two, protocol III of the 1980 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons states: “It is prohibited in all circumstances to make the civilian population as such, individual civilians or civilian objects, the object of attack by incendiary weapons.” Some have claimed the use of WP contravenes the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention which bans the use of any “toxic chemical” weapons which causes “death, harm or temporary incapacitation to humans or animals through their chemical action on life processes”.

The Israelis say they are only using it a a masking agent – to cover ground troops against enemy fire, but this is surely just another excuse.

WP is a chemical weapon – just take a look at this pathology of symptoms.

White phosphorus can cause significant injury and death, and its use by the military has been highly criticized. Morbidity and mortality can occur by exposure to soft tissue, through inhalation, and by ingestion.

White phosphorus skin exposure results in painful chemical burn injuries. The resultant burn typically appears as a necrotic area with a yellowish color and characteristic garlic like odor. These burns carry a higher risk of morbidity and mortality. White phosphorus is highly lipid soluble and, as such, is believed to have rapid dermal penetration once particles are embedded under the skin. This deep absorption can result in heart, liver, and kidney damage. It has also been postulated that, because of its enhanced lipid solubility, these injuries result in delayed wound healing.  (emedicine)

In my view, the Israeli use of WP in Gaza should be considered a war crime. How, in a heavily-populated civilian area can you justify such toxic weapons?

The irony is of course that’s it’s OK to bomb the sh*t out of civilians and combatants alike using “conventional” weapons – which are just as deadly, but not so-called “chemical” weapons. At the end of the day, what’s the freakin’ difference. You are just as dead, or your leg’s blown off, or your hair and eyes fall out.

None of it’s good.

It’s also a pathetic indictment of the Israelis that they can – with straight face, in the eyes of their god – claim that to protect women and children they must subject women and children to such horrific injuries and painful violent, slow horrible death.

It’s important that these stories are getting out, despite heavy attempts at censorhip. News reporters are now beginning to get their heads around this story, but I continue to wonder about the moral purpose of journalism.

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14 Responses to A war crime by any other name – Israel’s “shake and bake” attrocities

  1. Medusa says:

    This is horrendous, I truly hope the Israeli culprits are held accountable. I just cannot understand how they can justify this with a clear conscience…mind you, I gather conscience is not necessarily as we know it.

    I would never have realised, thank you EM!

  2. Lita says:

    Ugh. This whole mess just gets uglier and uglier. I find it hard to get my head around it, but I’m of the ‘no human has a right to claim anywhere on earth as their own’ ilk, so to comprehend years and years of war and killing and escalations of those horrors, all for soil and bloody religon … I just can’t see reason in any of it. Again, ugh.

  3. Michael says:

    Is Israel trying to isolate themselves from the rest of the world??
    I can sympathize that they don’t like being attacked by terrorists operating in Gaza. In can understand their desire to catch and capture or kill those terrorists…but the constant “misstrikes” that are killing civilians, and targetting aid workers and humanitarian efforts shows such little respect for the value of human life, it disgusts me. And, I’m sure…many others.

  4. [...] I should explain that I had earlier written on my friend’s page – he was posting a “rocket count” each time a Qassam landed in Israel. I thought this was rather vulgar and totally missed the point that while the Palestinian resistance (NOT NECESSARILY HAMAS) had fired a handful of rockets, the Israelis had pounded Gaza with more than 60 air strikes, including the use of chemical weapons. [...]

  5. Israel says:

    This is a war. war (if you evr benn to one or read on one) is no precise!! you can’t controll everything. unfortunatly, you even hit one of your own sometimes. This is war that the enemy is hiding among civilians that in turn, let him in the past 8 years to hide among themselves. so, you give us the altimate weapon that strikes only the bad guys and we’ll use it! the ball is in your court…

  6. The dribblejaws are here. I’m letting this one in, but perhaps no more.

  7. [...] The Guardian website is carrying a video story about the use of white phosphorus weapons. [...]

  8. Stefan says:

    Although you have stated your reluctance to admit dissenting opinions on your blog Martin, would you kindly make exceptions for the International Committee for the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch, both of which accept that they have no evidence of Israel breaking international law in its apparent use of white phosphorous?

  9. What?
    (Jerusalem, January 10, 2009) – Israel should stop using white phosphorus in military operations in densely populated areas of Gaza, Human Rights Watch said today.

    Oh, and in case you missed it Stefan…Stop shelling crowded Gaza city and End Gaza’s humanitarian crisis AT ONCE.

    You must be reading the Israeli media Stefan, and missed those stories.

    Grief and devastation as fighting abates. I hope you’re proud of your heritage now.

    As for the rest of it. Workers of the world unite!

    Stefan knows well my politics and he knows, if he’s honest, that I have no time at all for any kind of nationalism or patriotism. I am an international socialist. You can Google that political tradition till the cows come home and you will never find a statement giving political support to any state or regime.

    Neither Washington (despite Obama), nor Moscow (despite the so-called “free market”), nor Tel Aviv.

  10. Medusa says:

    Touche EM!

  11. Stefan says:

    What HRW does not mention in its report is that Hamas was attacking Israeli forces from within built-up civilian areas. What is also implicit in the report is that HRW has no proof, no evidence only supposition and a long-held antipathy towards Israel.
    Also, Martin, you choose to ignore the ICRC’s opinion.

    Irwin Cotler: “A second war crime is when Hamas attacks [from within] civilian areas and civilian structures, whether it be an apartment building, a mosque or a hospital, in order to be immune from a response from Israel, Civilians are protected persons, and civilian areas are protected areas. Any use of a civilian infrastructure to launch bombs is itself a war crime… When Israel responds and civilians are killed because Israel is targeting an area from which rockets were launched, then it is Hamas which bears responsibility for the deaths, and not Israel, according to international law.”

    Who is Irwin Cotler?
    Professor of Law at McGill University, where he is Director of its Human Rights Programme, and Chair of InterAmicus, the McGill-based International Human Rights Advocacy Centre. He has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Yale Law School, and is the recipient of eight Honourary Doctorates, including one from York University, whose citation referred to him as “a scholar and advocate of international stature”.

    A constitutional and comparative law scholar, he litigated every section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including landmark cases in the areas of free speech, freedom of religion, women’s rights, minority rights, war crimes justice, prisoners’ rights, and peace law. He has testified as an expert witness on human rights before Parliamentary Committees in Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Israel, and has lectured at major international academic and professional gatherings in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

    An international human rights lawyer, Professor Cotler served as Counsel to former prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union (Andrei Sakharov), South Africa (Nelson Mandela), Latin America (Jacobo Timmerman), and Asia (Muchtar Pakpahan). He later served as international legal counsel to imprisoned Russian environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin; Nigerian playwright and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka; the Chilean-Canadian group Vérité et justice in the Pinochet case; and Chinese-Canadian political prisoner, Professor KunLun Zhang. More recently, he served as Counsel to Professor Saad Edin Ibrahim, the leading democracy advocate in the Arab world.

  12. Stefan says:

    Martin, you seem to consider polemic as proof. How you can be a lecturer in journalism is beyond me. A lecturer in agitprop yes, but journalism?

    You say you have no time for any kind of nationalism. So why support Palestinian nationalism? And why support theocratic militarism?

    I am not proud of my heritage Martin. I am, however, deeply grateful for it and I am humbled by the prospect of passing it on to my children. Inspired by the past, I have a stake in the future Martin. You do not.

  13. Stefan, all journalism is agitprop of one form or another – except for perhaps natural disasters and sports results.

    All you’ve come up with so far in your long posts has been polemic, laced with personal comments about me. Don’t call me a pot, you kettle.

    I support Palestinian nationalism as a nationalism of the oppressed, their fight against Zionism and imperialism is the middle east is the fight of workers everywhere for liberty and justice.

    This does not mean that I support the methods and ideology of Hamas, or Iran or Syria, etc, nor “theocratic militarism”.

    You can find a reasonable summary of my position at What we stand for

    If you want more detail try these links
    The prophet and the proletariat – on Islam and revolution
    The roots of Israel’s violence – yep, on Israel’s role in the middle east
    Middle East: Imperialist assault and tasks for the left

  14. Stefan says:

    So you DO have time for nationalism. You just pick and choose. You don’t support the methods or ideology of Hamas and yet you are a highly vocal apologist for it.
    All journalism is agitprop? That’s either a case of projection on your part or a lame attempt at self-justification. There’s a difference between your ideological stiffness and run-of-the-mill bias. One’s biases can, after all, be changed through argument, evidence and experience. Keeping the party line, however, involves consciously filtering reality so that it conforms to your ideological programme.
    Every journalist has a bias of one form or another – that’s not the problem with, say, reporting of the Middle East. The problem is that most journalists are either too lazy, too busy, too ignorant or too scared to step out of the pack and simply try to understand the situation, describe it and explain it to their audiences with a view to increasing the sum total of understanding. One exception that comes to mind is Anton La Guardia: I don’t subscribe to his view of the Israeli-Arab conflict but I appreciate his honesty and integrity in striving to understand it. I see nothing similar in your approach: you mine anti-Israel sources for emotive and inflammatory and rarely substantiated tidbits and accusations and vomit them into the public domain strung together with a some Mickey Mouse Marxist proclamations.
    You’re right, much of what I’ve posted on your site has been polemic because there’s been little in the way of factual content to contest. When I have contested demonstrable facts you sidestep it, for example: you have yet to comment on the ICRC’s statement re white phosporous; you ignore the glaring gaps in HRW’s accusations; you ignore my correcting your Adelaide Institute-style assertion that communists have never attacked Jews and were always their protectors.
    Instead, you offer tired slogans – “their fight against Zionism and imperialism in the middle east is the figh of workers everywhere for liberty and justice”. Really? Do you expect anyone who knows anything about Fatah’s or Hamas’s (or the other ‘liberation groups’) methods and motives to seriously accept that they’re interested in workers’ (but not Jewish workers’) rights? Maybe it works on planet SWP.

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