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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.

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Mr. Herby also said: "The use of such white phosphorous weapons against any military objective within concentrations of civilians is prohibited unless the military objective is clearly separated from the civilians. The use of air-dropped incendiary weapons against military objectives within a concentration of civilians is simply prohibited. These prohibitions are contained in Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons."

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'Most compelling case'

In Shifa Hospital's burn unit, Yasser Khalil checks on one of their most seriously injured patients – a woman with abnormal burns on her arms and legs. Dr. Khalil says he believes the burns were caused by white phosphorus.

"It's the first time we've seen anything like this," he says. "It's completely different from the usual burns we see every day. It's very deep, and if you smell it, you have a hard time breathing. It goes beyond a fourth-degree burn. It can burn through the muscle and can reach the bone."

His description matches one about white phosphorous found on the website:

"The particles continue to burn unless deprived of atmospheric oxygen. Contact with these particles can cause local burns. These weapons are particularly nasty because white phosphorus continues to burn until it disappears. If service members are hit by pieces of white phosphorus, it could burn right down to the bone."

The woman's name is Sabah Abu Halima. She lays on a bed here, wrapped in bandages, mourning the loss of her husband and four of her children. They died in an Israeli shelling attack in El-Atatra, near Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, an area with a mix of villages and agricultural fields. Israel says that the area around their house was being used by Hamas militants.

Two others in the house, a granddaughter and daughter-in-law, were also badly burned and transferred to Egypt for treatment. The Jan. 5 attack provides what Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch (HRW), calls "the single most compelling case" of white phosphorus use by the Israeli army.

The Abu Halima family are farmers, growers of crops such as strawberries and cucumbers. They were eating a late lunch in the family room when Mrs. Abu Halima, mother of 10, got up to go to the kitchen to get more food. She hardly heard the shell, but she felt it. "The explosion was not that strong, but suddenly you're in the middle of fire, just fire and smoke," she says.

"I heard the little one crying 'Mama, Mama,' but I couldn't see anything or do anything because of the smoke and fire," she explains, and then begins to weep. Above her bed hangs a TV, broadcasting a buzz of somber verses from the Koran.

'We have the evidence'

Abu Shabam, head of the burn unit, complains that enough isn't being done by the international aid and rights groups to verify whether white phosphorus munitions were used in civilian areas. "The time is now," he says. "We need them to be investigating and testing the area of explosions before evidence is lost."