After the war, Gazans seek answers on white phosphorus
Gaza doctors add to the growing number of accounts that suggest Israel used white phosphorus munitions against international norms of war.
Gaza City, Gaza
When Nafiz Abu Shabam received a 5-year-old patient at the Shifa Hospital early in the war between Israel and Hamas, he dressed her burns and sent her for tests. Three hours later, when he and other medical staff redressed the wound, they saw smoke coming from it.Skip to next paragraph
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"We found small pieces of foreign material in her body, and even when we picked it out, the wound was still smoking," he says. "We were later told [by foreign doctors and human rights workers who arrived after the war started] that it was white phosphorus."
Dr. Abu Shabam, head of the burn unit of Gaza City's main public hospital, now says that hundreds of Gazans from all parts of the strip, who were brought to the hospital during the war with unusual burns, must have been victims of white phosphorus shells used by Israel.
"We had patients who had burns over 10 to 15 percent of their body, and with that much of a burn, these people should not have died," Abu Shabam says.
His accusations about white phosphorus munitions add to the growing pool of accounts from Palestinian and foreign physicians and rights groups that suggest Israel used white phosphorus munitions in populated areas during the war and against the international norms of war.
As white phosphorus is highly incendiary, can reignite when exposed to oxygen, and causes painful chemical burns, it is not intended – or legal under international law – for use in civilian areas.
'Weapons permitted by law'
Israel initially denied that white phosphorus munitions were used in its 22-day war with Hamas. It now says, "there was no illegal use of phosphorus or any other material," according to the spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Amid the allegations that white phosphorus shells were used in populated areas, Israel announced an investigation.
"In response to the claims of NGOs and claims in the foreign press relating to the use of phosphorus weapons, and in order to remove any ambiguity, an investigative team has been established in the Southern Command to look into the issue," said an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman. "It must be noted that international law does not prohibit the use of weaponry containing phosphorus to create smoke screens and for marking purposes. The IDF only uses weapons permitted by law."
An Israeli foreign ministry statement pointed to findings by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which said in mid-January that it found no evidence of illegal phosphorus use. "The investigation of this matter," the spokesman said, was part of "routine IDF checks of its internal operating procedures and in no way indicated any illegal use."
The ICRC has since clarified its position. "The fact that International Humanitarian Law does not specifically prohibit phosphorous weapons does not imply that any specific use of weapons containing this substance is legal," said Peter Herby, head of the ICRC's Arms Unit. "The legality of each incident of use has to be considered in light of all of the fundamental rules I have mentioned. It may be legal or not, depending on a variety of factors."