Haaretz reported yesterday that an IDF unit is suspected of firing at least 20 white phosphorus shells (by the IDF’s count, which renders it automatically suspect) in densely populated Gaza areas in contravention of IDF policy. The shells caused severe burns and deaths to civilians who were showered with the deadly substance. The N.Y. Times has done a follow-up story today:
…A week into Israel’s war in Gaza, the home of Sabah Abu Halima was hit by an Israeli shell. Ms. Abu Halima, the matriarch of a farming family in the northern Gaza area of Beit Lahiya, was caught in an inferno that burned her husband and four of their nine children to death.
But as she lay in a bed on the third floor of an annex to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Wednesday, bandaged all over and in terrible pain, it was less the magnitude of her loss than the source of the fire that was drawing attention, not only from her doctors but also from human rights organizations and even the Israeli military.
…Palestinian officials say her family was hit by white phosphorus, a weapon that militaries use widely to obscure the battlefield but that is also limited under an international convention that bans targeting civilians with it.
Ms. Abu Halima said that when her family was hit, “fire came from the bodies of my husband and my children. The children were screaming, ‘Fire! Fire!’ and there was smoke everywhere and a horrible, suffocating smell,” she said. “My 14-year-old cried out, ‘I’m going to die. I want to pray.’ I saw my daughter-in-law melt away.”
The report provides the perspective of human rights organizations like Amnesty International which are explicitly referring to incidents like these as qualifying as war crimes:
Amnesty…found “indisputable evidence of widespread use of white phosphorus in densely populated residential areas in Gaza City and in the north.”…It said its investigators “saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still-burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli Army.” It called such use a likely war crime and demanded a full international investigation.
The use of white phosphorus and other incendiary weapons is covered in one protocol of a 1980 international treaty, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, that bans making civilians “the object of attack” by such arms. More broadly, though, international officials have acknowledged that militaries can legitimately use the substance in some cases.
[Though] military experts say phosphorus is often particularly useful in urban warfare, in part because it creates tall columns of smoke that can obscure upper-story windows…human rights groups harshly criticize its use, saying that the horrible burns and the widespread fires that phosphorus causes make it a menace to civilians.
…What makes white phosphorus controversial is that it can be difficult to control…When the shells explode in the air, they disperse pieces of felt soaked in phosphorus — larger version of the shells contain more than 100 of them — that can land on people and cause intense burning, according to Chris Cobb-Smith, a British Army veteran who is here as part of Amnesty International’s investigative team.
…Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s researcher for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, said in an interview, “We don’t know why they used them, but we do know that it could constitute a war crime.”
She added, “It is not a banned weapon, but it matters how you use it and there is no reason to use it in such densely populated areas. We want a full impartial investigation, not one by the army that used it.”
In honor of the dead, let’s let Mrs. Abu Halima have the last word:
She wept with fury, saying that as farmers she and her family had good relations with Israelis, selling them produce in past years. But now, she said, she wants to see Israel’s leaders — she named the foreign minister and president — “burn like my children burned.”
“They should feel the pain we felt.”
I have been writing about Israeli wars and heinous incidents like this perpetrated by the IDF for a number of years here in this blog. During Lebanon there were accusations that Israel used white phosphorus and cluster bombs and there was talk of possible war crimes.
But this war is different. Till now, I have never heard explicit charges of war crimes so often and regarding so many separate Israeli actions. I am not saying anything will be different this time than in the past when the accusations never went very far. But I think this war could be the tipping point. I think the international community is beginning to realize that giving Israel carte blanche to kill and maim its “enemies” not only makes Israel look like a monstrous nation, but it also shreds international law and the laws of war. Just as in Bosnia and Kosovo, there comes a time when a nation that has gone mad must be reined in lest it subvert the fabric of international comity. I’m hoping this is that time.