Is the smoke beginning to lift on Israels use of white phosphorus?

The cliché is that during the fog of war you can’t really find out what’s going on. Keeping out nearly all international media, as I’ve said before, is one very effective way of ensuring that things are enveloped in doubt, claim and counter-claim.

But in some cases during the Gaza conflict there has literally been a smokescreen – and it’s been produced by white phosphorus shells fired by the Israeli military.

White phosphorus is fired in 155mm (approximately 6-inch) shells that work a bit like cluster bombs. That is, the shells bursts open to scatter small “wedges” that are coated in white phosphorus (which itself burst into flames when exposed to oxygen). So, you have burning fragments pouring down from the sky over wide areas. It rains fire. To make matters worse, white phosphorus creates horrific injuries if it comes into contact with skin and bone – continuing to burn deep into the body for as long as there is still oxygen to fuel it.

Theoretically, WP is used (lawfully) by some armed forces to create smokescreens as cover for ground troops. But there have been repeated claims during the IDF-Hamas conflict that the Israeli military have used these incendiary weapons as anti-personnel munitions (a clear breach of the laws of war).

Think about it. The Gaza Strip (25 miles long and 4-7.5 wide, with about 1.5m inhabitants) is very densely populated. Tactically, to use WP at all in such circumstances is questionable. Firing these shells into the air and letting burning WP wedges spray over areas as big as a football pitch will seriously endanger civilians if they are anywhere in the vicinity.

On Sunday an Amnesty research team saw clear signs (“indisputable evidence” in their words) of WP shells having been fired in or near residential areas in Gaza City and the north of Gaza. There were, they say, WP wedges scattered all around Palestinian houses, many of the splinters still burning many hours after being fired.

There’s quite a lot of coverage of this in today’s papers and see the blog post from Donatella Rovera, the Amnesty Israel/OT researcher, writing from Gaza yesterday, where she describes “barefooted children running around lumps of still smouldering phosphorous”. (Be warned: Donatella describes the removal of decomposing bodies from under rubble and other disturbing incidents). And listen to her on yesterday’s The World Tonight (around the 10.28pm mark) where she says she’s seen white phosphorus in houses, alleyways, hospitals, and UN compounds and schools.

The Israeli spokesperson in the Times article linked to above stonewalled on WP: no we’re not using it at the moment and we only use lawful munitions. Israel has repeatedly refused to be pinned down on whether any of their forces have rained down phosphorescent fire on residential areas.

To me it’s just one more reason why we need an independent investigation into possible war crimes on all sides in this terrible – and thankfully halted – conflict.

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