Illegal use of white phosphorous by Israel in Gaza?

US-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Israel to stop using white phosphorous (WP) gas it claims Israel is using in its ground offensive in the densely populated neighborhoods of Gaza. And as the death toll from the Israeli military offensive rapidly reaches 1,000, with two-thirds believed to be civilians, MENASSAT spoke to HRW’s Emergencies Researcher, Fred Abrahams, to assess the facts on the ground.
White phosphorous shells? Israeli tanks firing 155mm shells over Gaza City. © Press TV

BEIRUT, January 14, 2009 (MENASSAT)  -  “We are very confident it is white phosphorous (WP) for a variety of reasons," Fred Abrahams, Emergencies Researcher for Human Rights Watch told MENASSAT in an email conversation about Israel's alleged use of white phosphorous in Gaza.

As the Israeli offensive is well into it's third week of bombing with the death toll approaching 1,000 in Gaza at press time, Israeli tanks resumed firing at civilian areas on Wednesday, using shells that were clearly igniting fires on the ground before dissolving into white smoke that blanketed the center of Gaza City and  the  Jabaliya area.

The Israeli military has denied the allegations that it has improperly used white phosphorous shells, saying only that it uses munitions in accordance with international law.

But Abrahams refutes the claim. "We saw it (white phosphorous) bursting over Gaza ourselves.  It has a distinguishable appearance - which is a155 mm artillery fired shell that explodes in the air, sending down about 100 burning wafers, which leave smoking trails.  We saw them detonate over the Gaza City/Jabaliya area,” he wrote.

White phosphorous with its distinct garlic smell is under international law permissible to use as an "obscurant" to mask troop movements particularly in open areas or to illuminate targets at night, but its use is controversial as it can cause severe chemical burns to people.

The usage of white phosphorous against civilians is prohibited under international law.

In a recent press release, Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that the use of white phosphorous in Gaza "violated the requirement under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life."

Abrahams voiced strong concern over the usage of white phosphorous in an area like Gaza that not only is highly populated but also lacks the necessary water resources to put out the gas shells whose fire can be difficult to extinguish.

White phosphorous is "highly problematic when used in populated areas, such as Jabaliya. It rains down 116 burning wafers over an area the size of a football field, and those wafers can set civilian structures on fire.  They can also burn people.  The fire is very hard to put out – you must cut off all the oxygen, such as by emerging it in water, which today in Gaza is in short supply," Abrahams told MENASSAT.

Photographic evidence

The International Red Cross said today that Israel has fired white phosphorus shells in its offensive in the Gaza Strip. But it says it has no evidence to suggest that the shells are being used improperly or illegally.

But, The Times of London claims to have obtained photographic evidence that proves Israel has indeed been using the notorious white gas in populated areas of the Gaza Strip.

The Times also claims to have "identified stockpiles of white phosphorous shells" from photos taken by Israeli troops on the Israeli-Gaza border this week.

The paper mentions the same type of shell "…155mm rounds clearly marked with the designation M825A1, an American-made WP munition," that was shown to a reporter by a Gaza resident a few days ago-and which HRW senior military analyst Marc Garlasco identified as white phosphorous.

Abrahams added that HRW had also obtained photographic evidence, telling MENASSAT, "We saw photos of the fused artillery shells taken inside Israel, and the markings on those photos are of white phosphorous.  You don’t fuse a shell unless it’s being prepared for use."

Influx of burn victims in Gaza hospitals

In addition to the claims made by HRW, an increasing number of Gazans, doctors and aid workers deployed in the Strip are now claiming its evident that Israel has been using the white phosphorous gas in Gaza.

On January 12, the Times of London reported that more than 50 people with burns were taken in for treatment at Nasser Hospital in the southern town of Khan Yunis.

The hospital director, Youssef Abu Al-Reesh, told The Times the influx of burn victims was the result of "a massive case of exposure to white phosphorus."

“We don’t have the medical experience to judge these cases, but we searched the Internet according to the cases we have, and it indeed confirmed that it’s white phosphorus munitions. I have been working in this hospital for ten years and I have never seen anything like this,” said Abu Al-Reesh.

Also on January 12, the New York Times reported on 10-year old Luay Suboh from Beit Lahiya who lost his eyesight and some skin on his face Saturday when, his mother said, a "fiery substance clung to him" as he was on his way home from a shelter where his family had gathered to pick up clothes.

Mads Gilbert, the Norwegian war surgery specialist who up until recently was providing emergency care at the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza told The Times that he had seen injuries he believed resulted from Israel’s use of a new "dense inert metal explosive" that caused "extreme explosions."

In the summer of 2006, HRW documented Israel's use of white phosphorous during its 34-day long war against Lebanon’s Shia party, Hezbollah. In 2004, the United States used the gas shells during its controversial siege of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.

Watch the Al Jazeera video in English on white phosphorous munitions here

Hear Human Rights Watch's senior military analyst Marc Garlasco speaking about white phosphorous gas in Gaza here