The White Phosphorus attacks recounted by Human Rights Watch in its just-released report, “Rain of Fire”, were only part of horrors of war inflicted upon civilians in Gaza during the 22-day IDF Operation Cast Lead, 27 December to 18 January.
Khuza’a village, east of Khan Younis, and not far from the Israeli border, was attacked intermittently for over three days by White Phosphorus, from 10 to 13 January. Then, on the 13th of January, as their homes were collapsing above their heads, women and children who were waving white flags while trying to flee were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.
The HRW report said that “the village of Khuza’a is one of the closest Palestinian residential areas to Israel, in sight of IDF watchtowers. Open fields separate it from the armistice line. In a series of ground incursions between January 11 and 13, Israeli forces engaged Palestinian fighters, apparently killing three of them. At the same time, local officials said, 16 civilians died and dozens more were wounded, many by smoke inhalation from the extensive use of white phosphorus…
The report continues:”On two separate occasions the IDF heavily used air-burst white phosphorus, artillery fired, killing one woman and injuring dozens of others, including one boy who burned his foot on a buried white phosphorus wedge 12 days after the attack. Residents and local human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that Palestinian fighters were active in the area, and an Islamic Jihad commander told the media that about one dozen fighters had directly engaged the IDF in Khuza’a. But these engagements appear to have been minimal, with the fighters mostly retreating whenever Israeli forces advanced. Even with the presence of these fighters, the IDF’s extensive use of air-burst white phosphorus in a populated area was unlawful due to the munition’s indiscriminate effects. In addition, if the purpose of the white phosphorus was to mask approaching troops, it is unclear why the IDF air-burst the white phosphorus over the neighborhood instead of ground-bursting it, which causes a denser smoke. The IDF’s assault on Khuza’a began around 9:30 pm on January 10, with an intense artillery barrage in the area, including white phosphorus shells bursting over the al-Najjar district, inhabited primarily by a family of that name. According to three residents, interviewed separately, white phosphorus shells exploded above private homes, showering the area with burning wedges. Some homes in the area caught on fire, and neighbors helped each other to extinguish the flames” …
The HRW report added that “The day after the attack, January 11, IDF forces moved into the al-Najjar district of Khuza’a for the first time. From approximately 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. they stayed on the edge of the village, residents and local human rights activists said, and several homes were bulldozed. The IDF returned around 3 a.m. on January 12 and destroyed some more homes, but withdrew again around noon. The next assault took place around midnight on January 13, with heavy shelling, including the extensive use of air-burst white phosphorus … The widespread use of white phosphorus in the area caused many injuries from smoke inhalation, residents and local human rights activists said. This was confirmed by Dr. Yusuf Abu Rish, the director of Nasser Hospital in nearby Khan Yunis, where many of the wounded were taken. He told Human Rights Watch that the hospital received more than 150 patients on January 13, and most of them were suffering from smoke inhalation. ‘Even the ambulance bringing the victims was full of a foul odor’, he said. Many of the victims suffered from a shortness of breath, hysteria and muscle spasms’. Twelve patients arrived at the hospital dead that day, Dr. Abu Rish said, but that was from all attacks in the Khan Yunis area and not just from white phosphorus. Human Rights Watch reviewed the hospital’s records and found that on January 13 doctors there had treated 13 persons for what the hospital called chemical burns. Two of these patients required transfer to Egypt for treatment”… This account is recounted in full in the report which is posted on HRW’s website here.
But that was only part of the picture.
On 14 January, Jessica Montell of B’Tselem was one of a group of leading Israeli human rights campaigners who told a press conference in Jerusalem that there was a “clear and present danger” to civilians during the IDF operation in Gaza. “The situation is intolerable and must be stopped”, she said.
That morning, B’Tselem had issued an urgent media alert reporting that on 13 January, civilians — women and children, waving white flags — who trying to flee their homes during these attacks in which White Phosphorus was used in Khuza’a were shot dead by IDF soldiers. “Even if Hamas people are hiding at a hospital, as long as fire has not come from that hospital, by international law there is no justification for military action, and a hospital does not become a legitimate target”, Montell told reporters.
Montell confirmed that her organization had received reports from eyewitnesses, which it transferred to the military, that a woman who walked out of her house in Khuza’a on 13th January, waving a white flag, had then been shot. Injured, and lying the ground where she had fallen, the woman had continued to wave the white flag until she was shot in the head. An ambulance which tried to reach the woman was fired at. Later in the day, a group of 30 civilians waving white flags was also shot at, and at least three more people died. Montell said she could not confirm greater numbers, but said that “This is not the first time that we get such information about the IDF shooting people who leave their houses with white flags, or waving white sheets.” This report was recounted in our earlier post, on 14 January, here.