Human Rights Watch (HRW) lifts embargo on White Phosphorous report

Fred Abrahams, the senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), and one of the co-authors of the report on Israel’s use of White Phosphorus in Gaza during the recent 22-day military operation, Cast Lead, said this afternoon in Jerusalem that the embargo was being lifted this afternoon, due to numerous leaks, already published in the media.

In a press release accompanying the report, Abrahams said “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 … For the needless civilian deaths caused by white phosphorus, senior commanders should be held to account”

The HRW press release says that “To explain the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, Israeli officials have repeatedly blamed Hamas for using civilians as ‘human shields’ and for fighting from civilian sites. In the cases documented in the report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of Hamas using human shields in the vicinity at the time of the attacks. In some areas Palestinian fighters appear to have been present, but this does not justify the indiscriminate use of white phosphorus in a populated area.

Human Rights Watch said that for multiple reasons it concluded that the IDF had deliberately or recklessly used white phosphorus munitions in violation of the laws of war. First, the repeated use of air-burst white phosphorus in populated areas until the last days of the operation reveals a pattern or policy of conduct rather than incidental or accidental usage. Second, the IDF was well aware of the effects of white phosphorus and the dangers it poses to civilians. Third, the IDF failed to use safer available alternatives for smokescreens”.

The HRW report is damning.

It says that “The only unique benefit provided by white phosphorus is the ability to interfere with the infra-red spectrum, thus impeding the use of night vision and infra-red tracking systems used in anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). However, the IDF extensively used white phosphorus during the day, obviating the need to block night vision, and Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Hamas fired ATGMs”.

The report adds that “White phosphorus can also be used as a weapon against hardened military targets, such as bunkers.  However, it may not be used as an anti-personnel weapon when a weapon less likely to cause unnecessary suffering is available”.

It also says that “The use of white phosphorus as an obscurant in densely populated areas of Gaza violated the requirement under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. This concern is amplified given the method of use observed by Human Rights Watch and evidenced in media photographs of air-bursting white phosphorus projectiles. Air-bursting spreads burning wedges in a radius up to 125 meters from the blast point, thereby exposing more civilians and civilian objects to potential harm than a localized ground burst”.

And, it says that “In all of these cases, if smoke-screening was the intended aim, then the IDF possessed alternatives to the highly incendiary white phosphorus; namely, 155mm smoke projectiles, which produce the equivalent visual screening properties without the incendiary and destructive effects.  Smokescreens generated by smoke artillery can be deployed more easily over a wider area than white phosphorus with no risk of fires or burns to civilians. Israel Military Industries (IMI) manufactures such shells.  While smoke shells do not block infra-red optics and weapon-tracking systems, the IDF consistently used white phosphorus during the day, obviating the need to block night vision, and Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Hamas fired anti-tank guided missiles.  Even if Israeli soldiers or armor in need of cover had been on the ground in the areas where white phosphorus was used, air-bursting the munition creates a less effective smokescreen than ground-bursts because the smoke is more widely dispersed.  Ground-burst white phosphorus, targeted properly, is less likely to harm civilians because the burning wedges stay more contained.  The consistent use of air-burst white phosphorus instead of smoke projectiles, especially where no Israeli forces were on the ground, strongly suggests that the IDF was not using the munition for its obscurant qualities, but rather for its incendiary effect.  Indeed, Human Rights Watch is not aware of the IDF using its white phosphorus in Gaza before, despite numerous incursions with personnel and armor”.

The HRW report says that “In incidents investigated by Human Rights Watch, Israeli forces used white phosphorus munitions in an indiscriminate or disproportionate manner in violations of the laws of war. In these incidents, even if the intended use of the white phosphorus was as an obscurant, it had the effect on the ground as a weapon. The rationale for an obscurant seems doubtful because there were either no Israeli forces in the vicinity to screen or such forces were for a considerable period in a stationary deployment. And if the purpose was to obscure military maneuvers, the IDF could have achieved similar obscuring effects through use of smoke artillery without causing the same degree of civilian harm. Israel has not asserted that it used white phosphorus as a weapon, but the apparent absence of nearby Hamas fighters in cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, as well as the legal limitations placed on the use of white phosphorus weapons in populated areas, would not justify its use in this manner. That would remain true even if Hamas forces were deployed among civilians or using civilians as “shields,” as Israel has asserted, because Israel would still have a duty to attack Hamas in a more discriminate way so as to minimize civilian casualties … The IDF’s use of white phosphorus munitions may also have violated the prohibition on attacks that are expected to cause civilian harm which is excessive compared to the expected military gain. In cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, the military value of white phosphorus fired as an apparent obscurant appeared to be minimal given the absence of Israeli forces in the vicinity. By comparison, the expected harm to civilians and civilian objects by using white phosphorus was often high, and thus disproportionate in violation of the laws of war. As the incendiary effects of white phosphorus on civilians are well known, the civilian harm caused by white phosphorus use in populated areas was foreseeable”.

Entitled “Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza”, the HRW report says that “Unable to enter Gaza, Human Rights Watch researchers spent time on the Israeli side of the 1948 armistice line with northern Gaza. On January 9, 10 and 15, they watched IDF artillery repeatedly fire air-burst white phosphorus above civilian areas, including what appeared to be Gaza City and Jabalya. Israeli forces fired these shells from a 155mm artillery battery east of Highway 232 in Israel.

“The distinctive burst, sending burning wedges down, was consistent with media photographs taken since the start of the ground invasion on January 3. Barred by Israel from entry into Gaza, the researchers were unable to determine precisely where the white phosphorus landed and what effect it had on the civilian population.

“Human Rights Watch researchers entered Gaza via the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on January 21, three days after major military operations had ceased, and spent the next 10 days investigating many of the sites where white phosphorus had been used, and the resultant harm to civilians and civilian objects. During this time, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted 29 interviews with the victims and witnesses of white phosphorus use, as well as with ambulance drivers and doctors who treated people with burns. Interviews with doctors who treated burn patients, as well as with another witness of a white phosphorus attack, were conducted in Cairo, Egypt on February 9 and 10.

“Human Rights Watch found that in Gaza the IDF used white phosphorus in at least three ways. First, on at least three occasions, Israeli forces air-burst white phosphorus in densely populated areas. On January 15, for example, the IDF air-burst white phosphorus over homes and apartment buildings in the crowded Gaza City neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa, where civilians were living or taking shelter, killing at least four members of one family. White phosphorous shells hit a hospital the same day.

“Also on January 15, at least three IDF white phosphorus shells struck the main compound of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in central Gaza City, wounding three people and starting fires that gutted four buildings and destroyed more than US$3.7 million worth of medical supplies. UNRWA officials told Human Rights Watch that they had been speaking with Israeli military officers throughout the morning, asking them to halt fire. According to the UN, about 700 civilians were sheltering in the UN compound at the time.

“In the attacks on the UNRWA compound and another at the UN Beit Lahiya school, where 1,600 civilians were taking shelter, Human Rights Watch’s investigation revealed no apparent military justification for using white phosphorus as an obscurant because Israeli forces were not on the ground in those areas at the time.

“Second, the IDF used air-burst white phosphorus on the edges of populated areas, possibly as an obscurant to mask the movement of its forces. In some of these cases, such as in Siyafa village in northern Gaza on January 4 and in Khuza’a village in southern Gaza on January 10 and 13, substantial amounts of burning white phosphorus wedges landed hundreds of meters inside residential areas, killing at least six civilian and wounding dozens. The use of white phosphorus near these residential areas violated the obligation under the laws of war to take all feasible precautions during military operations to minimize civilian harm.

“Third, the IDF used air-burst white phosphorus in open areas along the boundary separating Israel and Gaza, Human Rights Watch was not able to investigate whether this use resulted in the destruction of civilian objects in excess of the expected military gain because security concerns prohibited travel to the area.

“UNRWA Gaza Field Administration Officer Scott Anderson, a former US army officer, explained how he contacted the Israeli military as shells landed progressively closer to the UNRWA headquarters on January 15: ‘I don’t know when exactly the first shell hit us, but the shells were getting close by 8 a.m., and I called the IDF coordination unit at Erez to try to get them to stop it. The pattern of shelling was that it started over the Gaza Training College, in the western part of the UNRWA compound, and then the shelling moved to the west and walked its way over the whole compound. It was hitting the compound itself for around an hour’.

The HRW report included an interview with an Israeli soldier: “Human Rights Watch interviewed one IDF soldier who participated in Operation Cast Lead as a medic on reserve duty and had served in Gaza for more than two years prior to disengagement in 2005. He spent the last eight days of the operation in Gaza, he said, based near Zeitoun, southeast of Gaza City. Regarding white phosphorus, the soldier, who requested anonymity, said that he saw the IDF air-burst it at an angle of about 30 degrees from 155mm artillery above houses that they suspected of being booby-trapped, based on intelligence. ‘I don’t know why the angle was low, but it was used to burn a house’, he said. ‘We were told it was an empty house. We knew it was mined. It blew up [after being hit with the white phosphorus] and there were several explosions [perhaps of weapons stored there]. He continued: ‘I also saw conscripts using white phosphorus in Zeitoun. It was used there too at low angles. There was no specific briefing about it. But as part of our medical training we did go through the scenario of how to deal with it’. The use of air-burst white phosphorus to destroy houses suspected of having weapons or booby-traps is highly questionable when the IDF possess more effective precision weapons designed to minimize collateral damage, such as the GBU-39, a 250-pound (113 kg) guided bomb.

“Human Rights Watch has long criticized the IDF for firing 155mm high explosive shells into or near densely populated areas as indiscriminate attacks in violation of the laws of war. Using the same artillery to fire air-burst white phosphorus munitions, which send burning phosphorus wedges 125 meters in all directions, is similarly unlawful when used in populated areas.

“The total number of Palestinians killed and injured by white phosphorus is not known and will likely remain so. Hospitals in Gaza were unable to provide statistics on white phosphorus casualties because they lacked the diagnostic tools to determine the cause of burns. Medical records from the time are also poor because hospitals were overwhelmed by the numbers of injured and dead.

“Still, the serious impact on civilians and civilian objects is clear. In the six cases documented in this report alone, which represent a selection of white phosphorus attacks in Gaza, white phosphorus shells, burning white phosphorus wedges, or the resulting fires killed 12 civilians, including three women and seven children, one of them a fifteen-month-old baby. Dozens were wounded by burns or smoke inhalation. Human Rights Watch encountered cases of civilians who were injured from stepping on white phosphorus remains up to 12 days after major hostilities had stopped.

“During eleven days of research from January 21 to 31, 2009, Human Rights Watch researchers found 24 spent white phosphorus 155mm shells in civilian areas of Gaza, apparently in the places where they had fallen, including in homes and on streets in residential neighborhoods. The shells and the canisters they contained were colored a distinctive light green, which identifies them as having held white phosphorus.

“Palestinian de-miners showed Human Rights Watch an additional 48 shells that they said they had removed from civilian areas, although the precise location where they found these shells is unclear. It is unlikely that the de-miners collected any of these shells from open areas near the Gaza-Israel armistice line due to the security concerns of entering those areas; Israeli forces have repeatedly opened fire on anyone who gets within a few hundred meters of Israeli territory.

“Human Rights Watch also found canister liners and dozens of burnt felt wedges containing white phosphorus on streets, roofs, private courtyards, and the UN school in Beit Lahiya. Many of them reignited when kicked or prodded, thereby exposing the white phosphorus to oxygen. When lit and smoking, they emitted a strong odor similar to garlic, which is typical of white phosphorus.

“All of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found came from the same lot manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time. In addition, on January 4, 2009, Reuters photographed IDF artillery units handling projectiles whose markings indicate that they were produced in the United States at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in September 1991.

“Israel’s willingness to investigate its use of white phosphorus is welcome, but history suggests that the likelihood of an objective examination is slim. Previous IDF investigations have failed to look objectively at alleged laws of war violations by Israeli soldiers and commanders. In the case of Operation Cast Lead, military investigators have already suggested that soldiers and commanders did no wrong, even before the investigations are complete.

“On February 1, 2009 Human Rights Watch submitted a list of detailed questions about white phosphorus to the IDF, provided as an appendix to this report. On February 15 the IDF replied by letter, also an appendix, that it could not provide answers within the requested time-frame of two weeks. “The IDF has established an investigative team in the Southern Command to look into issues which you have raised, and our reply will be made on the basis of their findings,” the letter said.

“When set to burst in mid-air, the 116 white phosphorus-coated felt wedges in a typical 155mm artillery shell can fall over an area up to 250 meters in diameter. In total, one air-burst shell releases 12.74 pounds (5.78kg) of burning white phosphorus.

“When white phosphorus comes into contact with people or objects, it creates an intense and persistent burn, emitting heat and absorbing liquid. It is soluble in organic material and fat, but not in water, which neutralizes it by cutting off the oxygen supply.

“In addition to causing intense burns, white phosphorus can also penetrate the body and poison internal organs. According to a report prepared during the recent fighting by the office of IDF chief medical officer, ‘kidney failure and infections are characteristic long-term outcomes’. The report concludes that ‘a wound caused by explosive ordnance containing phosphorus is potentially extremely destructive to tissue’.

A report by the Israeli Ministry of Health is equally stark in its assessment of white phosphorus’s medical risks. Entitled “Exposure to White Phosphorus,” the report states that ‘[w]hite phosphorus can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed’. It continues: ‘[b]ecause it is very soluble in fat, it quickly penetrates the skin from the surface or from an embedded fragment. Most of the tissue damage is cause by the heat accompanying the continuing oxidation of the phosphorus, and from the product of the oxidation – phosphoric acid’. ‘The report also mentions the “systemic poisoning” that can result: In addition to its ‘usual’ burn effects, white phosphorus is poisonous, and has serious consequences that intensify the effects of the injury. Many laboratory studies have shown that burns covering a relatively small area of the body – 12-15% in laboratory animals and less than 10% in humans – may be fatal because of their effects on the liver, heart and kidneys. Additional effects include serious hypocalcemia and delayed healing of wounds and burns.

“The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has used white phosphorus in the past, notably in the wars in Lebanon in 1982 and 2006. The IDF uses indirect-fire systems to launch white phosphorus munitions, meaning that the firing unit does not see the target, but relies on spotters to provide targeting information. To fire white phosphorus in Gaza, the IDF used 155mm artillery shells and 120mm mortar shells; Human Rights Watch researchers found the remnants of both in Gaza, many of them in residential areas. The use of air-burst white phosphorus delivered by 155mm artillery shells in populated civilian areas caused the casualties and damage that is the focus of this report.

“Each 155mm shell contains a light green canister marked ‘WP CANISTER’ that holds four metal liners. The liners hold the 116 felt wedges soaked in phosphorus. When air-burst, the canisters explode in mid-air, ejecting the felt wedges from the shell casing and scattering them over a wide area, leaving the empty shell casing to land separately. When exposed to oxygen, the wedges ignite. Human Rights Watch researchers found shell casings, unexploded white phosphorus canisters, canister liners, and felt wedges from inside the canisters in multiple sites in the Gaza Strip. Researchers saw felt wedges igniting when agitated or exposed to oxygen up to two weeks after they had landed.

“All of the white phosphorus shells Human Rights Watch found in Gaza are from the same lot, manufactured in the United States and marked: THS89D112-003 155MM M825E1. THS89D is the manufacturer identification code denoting that the shells and contents were produced in April 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which operated the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time; 112-003 are the interfix and sequence numbers, which denote that several lots of the same ammunition were being produced simultaneously; 155mm stands for the caliber of the artillery shell. M825E1 is the US military designation for an older remanufactured M825 white phosphorus shell that has been brought up to the current M825A1 standard.[5]

“Additionally, Reuters news agency photographed an IDF artillery unit in Israel near Gaza handling M825A1 projectiles on January 4, 2009 with the lot number PB-91J011-002A, indicating that these shells were produced in the United States at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in September 1991…”

The HRW report adds that “The United States government, which supplied Israel with its white phosphorus munitions, should also conduct an investigation to determine whether Israel used it in violation of international humanitarian law”.

The report states that “Serious violations of international humanitarian law committed willfully — that is, deliberately or recklessly — are war crimes, and give rise to individual criminal responsibility. War crimes include intentional or indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as well as attacks in which the expected civilian loss is disproportionate compared to the anticipated military gain. Individuals may also be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, and aiding or abetting a war crime. Responsibility may also fall on persons planning or instigating the commission of a war crime. Commanders and civilian leaders may be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible. Even if intended as an obscurant rather than as a weapon, the IDF’s firing of air-burst white phosphorus shells from 155mm artillery into densely populated areas was indiscriminate or disproportionate, and indicates the commission of war crimes.

“The IDF’s deliberate or reckless use of white phosphorus munitions is evidenced in five ways. First, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, the IDF never used its white phosphorus munitions in Gaza before, despite numerous incursions with personnel and armor. Second, the repeated use of air-burst white phosphorus in populated areas until the last days of the operation reveals a pattern or policy of conduct rather than incidental or accidental usage. Third, the IDF was well aware of the effects white phosphorus has and the dangers it can pose to civilians. Fourth, if the IDF used white phosphorus as an obscurant, it failed to use available alternatives, namely smoke munitions, which would have held similar tactical advantages without endangering the civilian population. Fifth, in at least one of the cases documented in this report – the January 15 strike on the UNRWA compound in Gaza City – the IDF kept firing white phosphorus despite repeated warnings from UN personnel about the danger to civilians. Under international humanitarian law, these circumstances demand the independent investigation of the use of white phosphorus and, if warranted, the prosecution of all those responsible for war crimes”.

The HRW said its report “was researched and written by Human Rights Watch staff Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst, Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher, Bill van Esveld, researcher, Fares Akram, research consultant, and Darryl Li, consultant to Human Rights Watch. It was edited by Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division, James Ross, legal and policy director, and Iain Levine, program director”.

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