"What was going through my mind was one thought alone: Let it not be phosphorus"

Bradley Burston wrote in Haaretz today that “The war had gone on only a few days when Israel Channel 10 television began interspersing coverage of Palestinian rockets exploding in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon and commercials for the Israeli version of the veteran reality show Survivor, in which one of the contestants is shown saying of the rival tribe ‘We’re gonna kick their butts!’ Later that evening, the station’s news department broadcast an unending, eerily quiet, queasily stationary live shot of Israeli shells exploding in slow, domelike cascades of smoke and fire an indeterminate distance behind and beside a residential area of Gaza. I could have watched this as a journalist, or a foreigner, or a member of the peace camp. Or I could have watched it as what they call great television. If I’d lived far enough away, it was fully bizarre enough to have qualified as a live reality series on its own … But I watched it as a soldier from a past war. A medic. A medic’s imagination is stalked by two things – What you’ve seen already, and what you hope you never will.

“What was going through my mind was one thought alone: Let it not be phosphorus.

Here are some photos taken of the 17 January IDF attack — with White Phosphorous — on an UNRWA school in Beit Lahiya. This happened the day that Israel announced a ceasefire — just hours before the it was announced, and hours before it went into effect. There were dozens if not hundreds of people in the school at the time, who had sought shelter from the military offensive. The photos are available on the UNRWA website here:

UNRWA school in Beit Lahiya attacked on 17 Jan 09

UNRWA school in Beit Lahiya attacked by White Phosphorous - 17 Jan 09

“They taught us to dread zarchan [from the Hebrew root to shine or glow]. They taught us, as medics, that if we treated a phosphorous wound, prepare for the worst. It doesn’t merely burn, they taught us, it burns first through the skin, then through the soft tissue, until it reaches bone. They taught us to take an instrument, or, in its absence, a stick, to dig out the phosphorus crystals from the flesh, or the burning would go on and on” …

Bradley Burston continued: “Channel 10 brought on military expert after military expert to discuss phosphorus and whether Israel was using it. No one would say yes. There were those who pointed out that the shells they might be using were legal under international law, when used to create smoke cover for troops moving in uninhabited areas, and to explode land mines. But they wouldn’t say if we were using it. There were those who said that everything the troops were doing was within the context of international conventions of warfare. But they wouldn’t say more than that.

We have to know. We have to know what we did. We have to know if the circumstances warranted it. We have to know what we did, and if what was done was done in error or by intention …

This can be read in full here.

Here is what Human Rights Watch published on 10 January:
“Israel appears to be using WP as an ‘obscurant’ (a chemical used to hide military operations), a permissible use in principle under international humanitarian law (the laws of war). However, WP also 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 potential for harm to civilians is magnified by Gaza’s high population density, among the highest in the world.

Human Rights Watch believes that the use of WP in densely populated areas of Gaza violates 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 technique evidenced in media photographs and viewed by Human Rights Watch researchers on January 9 of air-bursting WP projectiles, which spreads the burning wafers over a wider area, thereby increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects.

What is White Phosphorous?

White phosphorous (WP) is a chemical substance dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets, used primarily to obscure military operations on the ground. It is not considered a chemical weapon and is not banned per se. WP ignites and burns on contact with oxygen and creates a smokescreen at night or during the day to mask the visual movement of troops. It also interferes with infra-red optics and weapon-tracking systems, thus protecting military forces from guided weapons such as anti-tank missiles. When WP comes into contact with people or objects, though, it creates an intense and persistent burn. It can also be used as a weapon against military targets (see below).

How is WP used?

WP can be air-burst or ground-burst. It emits a distinct ‘garlic’ smell. When air-burst, it covers a larger area than ground-burst and is useful to mask large troop movements. However, this spreads the incendiary effect over a wider area and in densely populated areas, as in much of Gaza, increases the exposure of civilians. When the weapon is ground-burst, the endangered area is more concentrated and the smokescreen remains for longer. The cloud from WP is dependent on atmospheric conditions, so it is impossible to generalize how long it will remain in the air.

WP can also be used as a weapon. US forces used WP during the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004 to “smoke out” concealed combatants, who were then attacked.

Why is WP controversial?

WP burns anything it touches. When air-burst as an obscurant, it can fall over an area about the size of a football field, about the same area affected by a cluster bomb. Those below may receive horrific skin burns, and it can set structures, fields, and other objects on fire. Using WP against military targets in densely populated areas would also raise concerns where the weapon could not be directed at a specific military target and thus would be indiscriminate in its impact, in violation of the laws of war. Humanitarian law also places restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons like WP against military personnel when other weapons are available.

What is the status of WP under international law?

WP used as weapons are considered incendiaries. Incendiary weapons are not prohibited under the laws of war. However, the use of WP against military targets is regulated under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). Although Israel is not party to this treaty, customary laws of war prohibit the anti-personnel use of incendiary weapons so long as weapons less likely to cause unnecessary suffering are available.

A 1998 Israeli military manual states: ‘Incendiary arms are not banned. Nevertheless, because of their wide range of cover, this protocol of the CCW is meant to protect civilians and forbids making a population center a target for an incendiary weapon attack. Furthermore, it is forbidden to attack a military objective situated within a population center employing incendiary weapons. The protocol does not ban the use of these arms during combat (for instance, in flushing out bunkers)’.”

This and more is posted on the HRW website here.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported this yesterday: ” ‘The destruction in Gaza was proportional to the explosives and resistance presented by Hamas’, Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, Israel’s Gaza Division commander, recently told reporters. ‘In cases where there wasn’t resistance, we did our best not to hurt and to cause damage. But in places where there was resistance, we used force’.” The full article is posted here.

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