Israeli Use of White Phosphorus Unlawful, Human Rights Watch Concludes

Controversial on all accounts, the deployment of white phosphorus munitions by Israeli forces in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008 – January 18, 2009) is the subject of a new report by Human Rights Watch, entitled Rain of Fire.  With its use initially denied but now under investigation by Israeli officials, Rain of Fire concludes Israeli forces’ indiscriminate use of white phosphorus in civilian areas “violated international humanitarian law.” 

Igniting and burning on contact with oxygen, white phosphorus is a chemical substance used as an obscurant by militaries to cover the movement of ground troops and equipment, and is also utilized to set fire to military targets.  Rain of Fire maintains the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) used air-burst white phosphorus munitions over populated areas, in direct contravention of international humanitarian laws. 

While not explicitly banned by an international treaty, white phosphorus is classified as an incendiary weapon and is regulated by the Convention on Conventional Weapons.  This convention “prohibit[s] the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons against military objectives located within a concentration of civilians.”  The Human Rights Watch report found “the unlawful use of white phosphorus was neither incidental nor accidental… [as it was] repeated over time and in different locations.”

A report prepared by the Israeli ministry of health informed IDF commanders of the substance’s dangers, including causing “‘serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed.’  The [ministry] report states that burns on less than 10 percent of the body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys and heart.”  In addition to the information contained in the aforementioned report, Israeli commanders were well aware of the dangers the substance posed to civilians, as they “have used the munition for many years.”

Despite the health risks, and access to a “readily available and non-lethal alternative,” the IDF continued its “deliberate and reckless use white phosphorus munitions,” as evidenced by information gathered by Human Rights Watch.  Even more troubling, “despite repeated warnings from UN personnel about the danger to civilians,” Israeli forces continued launching white phosphorus munitions, damaging United Nations-run facilities and destroying over $3.7 million worth of medical supplies. 

Later investigations by Human Rights Watch “found 24 spent white phosphorus 155mm shells in civilian areas… including in homes and on streets in civilian areas.”  Interviews with victims and witnesses, including Gaza residents, UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) workers and physicians, strengthen further the conclusions drawn by the report.  Also included in Rain of Fire are recommendations to the United Nations, the Government of Israel and the Government of the United States as to what an appropriate response to the white phosphorus incidents should be.

Read the entire report here.

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