According to the HRW report released today on the IDF’s use of White Phosphorus during its 22-day Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, attacks by White Phosphorus began in different areas of the Gaza Strip after the IDF began its ground offensive on 3 January.
One of the worst accounts is this one, about a young man who was terribly wounded while trying to save his family who were burning to death in a car hit by White Phosphorus:
The HRW report states:
“The Tel al-Hawa neighborhood in southeastern Gaza City is a relatively affluent residential area with wide streets and multi-story apartment buildings inhabited mostly by professionals and their families-what one resident called ‘a secular stronghold’ … Ground fighting commenced when IDF troops began to enter the neighborhood from the south for limited periods around January 11, reportedly facing heavy mortar and gunfire from Palestinian armed groups. The fighting intensified around midnight on January 14-15, when Israeli forces advanced into Tel al-Hawa with troops and tanks, their furthest push towards the city’s center to date. According to residents and media reports, they took up positions in parts of the neighborhood, with tanks positioned on Industrial Street, after more armed encounters with Hamas. Around 7 a.m. on January 15, the IDF began to fire high-explosive and white phosphorus artillery shells in the area. According to three local residents, interviewed separately, the shelling lasted for approximately three hours, and during that time white phosphorus killed four civilians, all members of the same family who were traveling in a car. The shelling resumed early the next morning, at approximately 1:15 a.m., and lasted until at least 10 p.m. that day …
“According to Fathi Sabbah, multiple explosions around 7 a.m. startled his family as they slept in their second-floor apartment. About three hours later, a shell exploded over their building, he said, followed by fire and smoke. He explained: … ‘After ten minutes the owners of the apartments on the top floors went up to inspect. Two apartment owners on the south side said shells had hit their apartments. After an hour we smelled something. We went up later and found that a bedroom on the fifth floor was on fire. We called the fire department and the ICRC. They said the IDF was not allowing them to come’. At that point, Sabbah said, neighbors came to the building to ask for help: a family was trapped in a car that had caught fire in the most recent shelling. Another neighborhood resident interviewed separately, 55-year-old Muhammad al-Sharif, a paint factory owner, told Human Rights Watch what he knew about the burning car: ‘My daughter told me there was a car on fire with people in it. I looked out and saw a young man who had lost control of himself trying to push his way into the burning car. When I got to the car he had fallen down and he was on fire. The shelling was ongoing and I dragged him to an alley and tried to talk to him, but he couldn’t talk. One of his eyes had burned away and he was horribly injured’. According to al-Sharif, he and the man were stuck in the alley for 90 minutes as the shelling continued, and because they feared Israeli snipers in the area. Once the shelling subsided, he and two young men carried the wounded man to a neighbor’s car and then drove him to al-Shifa hospital. At 2:30 p.m. al-Sharif returned to the car and found that it had partially melted and the gas tank had exploded. Around that time, Fathi Sabbah also arrived at the car, where he met a neighbor and an ambulance that had come to take the dead bodies away for burial. In the smoking wreckage, he said, they found only a few bones of the four occupants. A piece of a skull and some teeth lay next to the vehicle, al-Sharif said. Those killed were: ‘Uday al-Haddad, 55, branch manager for Palestine Bank; Ihsan, 44, (‘Uday’s wife), Hatim, 24, accounting student at Islamic University (‘Uday and Ihsan’s son; Ala`a, 14, pupil (‘Uday and Ihsan’s daughter). The wounded man who tried to push his way back into the burning car was another of ‘Uday and Ihsan’s sons, Mohammad al-Haddad, 25. Human Rights Watch spoke to al-Haddad in the burn unit at al-Shifa Hospital on January 27, and he corroborated the facts as presented by Sabbah and al-Sharif. According to Mohammad al-Haddad, the IDF started shelling Tel al-Hawa at 7 a.m. on January 15. He and his family waited in their home on Islamic University Street until 11 a.m., he said, when Israel announced it would begin a temporary unilateral ceasefire. At that point, they got into their gray 1996 Volkswagen Golf. He explained what happened next: ‘We drove about 100 meters to the intersection at the end of our street, when we were hit. The power of the explosion threw me from the car. I lost consciousness, but then I went back to the car, and that’s where Mr. al-Sharif said he found me. After that I woke up in the hospital’. In addition to losing his left eye, al-Haddad suffered third-degree burns to his legs, hands and forehead, and a broken jaw. The only other surviving member of his immediate family, his younger brother Salam, 18, had left the family’s house at 10 a.m., before the ceasefire began.
“Dr. Nafiz Abu Sha’baan, head of the burn and plastic surgery unit at al-Shifa Hospital, treated Mohammad al-Haddad upon arrival. Dr. Abu Sha`baan said that he had not treated any white phosphorus wounds prior to Operation Cast Lead and that the hospital did not classify injuries as caused by white phosphorus due to a lack of diagnostic tools to make that assessment. However, Dr. Abu Sha’baan told Human Rights Watch that Mohammad’s injuries appeared consistent with wounds caused by white phosphorus. ‘We think it’s from white phosphorus because the burns are very deep’, he said. ‘We already excised burnt tissue and now his wounds are getting worse. When we saw him the first time the wounds were more superficial than they are now. We’ve got to operate again tomorrow to excise more tissue’.
Elsewhere in the report, HRW states that “Palestinian and foreign doctors who treated burn victims told Human Rights Watch about seeing intense and very deep burns. On some occasions the wounds began to burn again when cleaned, which is consistent with white phosphorus igniting on contact with oxygen. ‘For the first time I’m seeing strange kinds of burns, very deep to the bone’, one doctor at al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City told Human Rights Watch. ‘And they cause a bacterial infection unlike anything else’. Some seriously burned patients were evacuated to Egypt for treatment, especially if they needed skin grafts, because Gazan hospitals could not offer proper care. ‘We have a lot of burns, actually chemical burns’, a doctor in Cairo treating Gazans told Human Rights Watch. ‘Most are third degree burns, which look like chemical burns and not ordinary burns. There is no skin and sometimes even no muscle’.”
In concluding its report on the deaths of four members of the Haddad family who were fleeing the fighting in their car after one of the IDF-declared “humanitarian pauses” went into effect, HRW said:
“On January 28, Human Rights Watch inspected the remains of the al-Haddad family’s vehicle, which still lay on the street where it had been struck. The car’s metal frame and interior were thoroughly burned, the wheels had melted off, and the metal around them was deformed. The rear of the car had been blown open, apparently by the force of the exploding gas tank”.