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
“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.