Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for an international investigation into Israel’s use of white phosphorus during its 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip. (photo, from bbc.co.uk)
On Thursday, the leading rights group said that the munitions were fired “deliberately or recklessly” and “over densely populated areas”.
It said that the use of the chemical in populated areas was “in violation of the laws of war”.
On contact with oxygen, white phosphorus ignites and can burn away flesh to the bone.
“In Gaza, the Israeli military didn’t just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops”, Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at HRW and co-author of the report, said.
“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.”
HRW urged the UN to examine the use of white phosphorus as part of the world body’s investigations into Israel’s conduct in Gaza. In January, the UN released pictures, believing they showed the use of white phosphorus.
HRW also asked the US to halt all shipments of the munition to Israel until it had investigated whether white phosphorus was used in violation of international law or any arms-transfer agreements.
A smoke screen
The rights group claims have been rejected by the Israeli army, saying that its own investigations had so far proved that the army’s use of white phosphorus was for “operational needs only”.
“Based on the findings at this stage, it is already possible to conclude that the [army’s] use of smoke shells was in accordance with international law”, the army said in a statement.
“These shells were used for specific operational needs only and in accord with international humanitarian law.”
Many countries use white phosphorus because it is designed to be used as a smoke screen in open areas.
Yet, human rights groups argue that its use in civilian neighbourhoods is illegal.
“An important thing to remember about white phosphorus is that it is not an illegal weapons system. It is perfectly legal, but it must be used in the right way”, Chris Cobb-Smith, a security consultant who co-authored an Amnesty International report on the munitions’ use, told Al Jazeera.
He added : “It is illegal to fire at humans. It is even illegal to fire this weapons system at enemy troops.”
In 71 pages, the HRW report documents evidence of spent shells and white phosphorus found in residential areas, city streets, a hospital and a UN school.
The report said : “Even if intended as an obscurant rather than as a weapon, the IDF’s [Israeli Defence Force] repeated firing of air-burst white phosphorus shells from 155mm artillery into densely populated areas was indiscriminate and indicates the commission of war crimes.”
‘Burn for hours’
On Thursday, Dr Naseph Abu Shaban, head of the burns unit at Gaza’s Shifa hospital, told Al Jazeera that his staff struggled to cope with the casualties caused by the munition. (photo, from aljazeera.net)
“During the war, we received many cases of burns with white phosphorus – even complete families came to us burned to death, some of them charred”, he said.“This white phosphorus continues to burn for hours, it never stops burning until you deprive it of oxygen.”
Sherine Tadros, Al Jazeera’s correspondent who was in Gaza during the offensive, said she had seen the remains of white phosphorus shells on the ground while filming in the territory.
“I remember one lady who showed me her wound. Taking off her bandages the smoke from her wound was still coming out”, she said. “So this is very nasty stuff.”
Senior Israeli commanders must have approved what they saw as a pattern or policy in white phosphorus use, said the HRW report.
Saying that an Israeli army inquiry is likely to be neither “thorough” nor “impartial”, HRW has called for Israeli senior commanders to be held to account and for an international investigation to take place.
Although Israel first denied using the munition during its war on the Gaza Strip, the country later announced an internal investigation into its improper use.