With apologies to Talking Heads. The Israeli Defense Force is using white phosphorus on built up areas in Gaza. They've denied it, sort of, by saying
January 6, 2009

With apologies to Talking Heads.

The Israeli Defense Force is using white phosphorus on built up areas in Gaza. They've denied it, sort of, by saying only that Israel is using "munitions that are allowed for under international law". Israel isn't a signatory to key arms control treaties, upheld by most of the rest of the world, which govern the use of WP and other chemical weapons. So those treaties can be ignored in favor of long-planned PR spin. Both the US and Israel claim that using WP as a smokescreen generator isn't prohibited by any treaties and they're correct - as long as the WP isn't being employed over built up areas, at which time the indiscriminate nature and incendiary anti-personnel effects of these airbursts make them illegal by the Geneva Conventions governing responsibilities towards civilian non-combatants and by article two, protocol III of the 1980 UN Convention on Certain Weapons. That is, a war crime.

That distinction came up in Fallujah, Iraq during 2004 when US forces initially said they were using white phosphorus only as a smokescreen, later on admitting reluctantly that it had also been used as an anti-personnel weapon on insurgents. The US military never officially admitted to using WP on civilian areas, however, despite numerous reports of second and third degree chemical burns consistent with WP use.

Incandescent particles of WP cast off by a WP weapon's initial explosion can produce extensive, deep (second and third degree), burns. Phosphorus burns carry a greater risk of mortality than other forms of burns due to the absorption of phosphorus into the body through the burned area, resulting in liver, heart and kidney damage, and in some cases multi-organ failure.[26] These weapons are particularly dangerous to exposed people because white phosphorus continues to burn unless deprived of oxygen or until it is completely consumed.

Earlier, the Bush administration had no problem with saying that Saddam's use of WP on civilian areas had been an atrocity, a war crime. Somehow I doubt they'll say the same about Israel.

Now, it looks like the IDF isn't just using the same weapons over built up areas, it's using the same excuses. Compare this footage from Gaza:

With this from Fallujah in 2004.

They show identical patterns of glowing airbursts leading to explosive incendiary effects on the ground over a wide area, as do many of the photos from Gaza. That pattern is of the US-made 155 mm M825A1 smoke WP projectile.

Let us all be clear about something.

The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated pieces of property in the world. The presence of militants within a civilian population does not, under international law, deprive that population of their protected status, and hence any assault upon that population under the guise of targeting militants is, in fact, a war crime.

Moreover, the people Israel claims are legitimate targets are members of Hamas, which Israel says is a terrorist organization. Hamas has been responsible for firing rockets into Israel. These rockets are extremely inaccurate and thus, even if Hamas intended to hit military targets within Israel, are indiscriminate by nature. When rockets from Gaza kill Israeli civilians, it is a war crime.

But the debate really does resolve down to this question from the movie "Night At The Museum" - who is evolved? Who is the terrorist and who has the moral high ground? Descending to the tactics of terrorism can never defeat terrorists. As we've seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere such tactics only ever create a new generation of hardliners on both sides willing to use conflict to their own ends. In Israel's case, right now, the hardliner's purpose isn't defeating Hamas - it is winning an election. To that end, Israel is using a definition of "enemy combatant" wider than any in common useage.

The International Committee of the Red Cross - guardian of the Geneva Conventions on which international humanitarian law is based - defines a combatant as a person "directly engaged in hostilities".

But Israeli Defence Forces spokesman Benjamin Rutland told the BBC: "Our definition is that anyone who is involved with terrorism within Hamas is a valid target. This ranges from the strictly military institutions and includes the political institutions that provide the logistical funding and human resources for the terrorist arm."

Philippe Sands, Professor of International Law at University College London, says he is not aware of any Western democracy having taken so broad a definition.

"Once you extend the definition of combatant in the way that IDF is apparently doing, you begin to associate individuals who are only indirectly or peripherally involved… it becomes an open-ended definition, which undermines the very object and purpose of the rules that are intended to be applied."

That means that Israel will continue indiscriminately burning down the house in Gaza, with predictable consequences:

The scene on Sunday at the hospital, a singular and grisly reflection of the violence around it, was both harrowing and puzzling. A week ago, when Israel began its air assault, hundreds of Hamas militants were taken to the hospital. Yet on Sunday, the day Israeli troops flooded Gaza and ground battles with Hamas began, there appeared not to be a single one.

The casualties at Shifa on Sunday — 18 dead, hospital officials said, among a reported 30 around Gaza — were women, children and men who had been with children. One surgeon said that he had performed five amputations.

“I don’t know what kind of weapons Israel is using,” said a nurse, Ziad Abd al Jawwad, 41, who had been working 24 hours without a break. “There is so much amputation.”

White phosphorus burns to the bone.

Crossposted from Newshoggers

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