This report documents Israel’s extensive use of white phosphorus munitions during its 22-day military operations in Gaza, from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009, named Operation Cast Lead. Based on in-depth investigations in Gaza, the report concludes that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) repeatedly exploded white phosphorus munitions in the air over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians, and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a hospital.
White phosphorus munitions did not kill the most civilians in Gaza – many more died from missiles, bombs, heavy artillery, tank shells, and small arms fire – but their use in densely populated neighborhoods, including downtown Gaza City, violated international humanitarian law (the laws of war), which requires taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm and prohibits indiscriminate attacks.
The unlawful use of white phosphorus was neither incidental nor accidental. It was repeated over time and in different locations, with the IDF “air-bursting” the munition in populated areas up to the last days of its military operation. Even if intended as an obscurant rather than as a weapon, the IDF’s repeated firing of air-burst white phosphorus shells from 155mm artillery into densely populated areas was indiscriminate and indicates the commission of war crimes.
The dangers posed by white phosphorus to civilians were well-known to Israeli commanders, who have used the munition for many years. According to a medical report prepared during the hostilities by the ministry of health, “[w]hite phosphorus can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed.” The report states that burns on less than 10 percent of the body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys and heart.
When it wanted an obscurant for its forces, the IDF had a readily available and non-lethal alternative to white phosphorus—smoke shells produced by an Israeli company. The IDF could have used those shells to the same effect and dramatically reduced the harm to civilians.
Using white phosphorus in densely populated areas as a weapon is even more problematic. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Israeli forces fired ground-burst white phosphorous at hardened military targets, such as Palestinian fighters in bunkers, but it may have air-burst white phosphorous for its incendiary effect. Fired from artillery and air-burst to maximize the area of impact, white phosphorous munitions will not have the same lethal effect as high-explosive shells, but will be just as indiscriminate.
The IDF’s deliberate or reckless use of white phosphorus munitions is evidenced in five ways. First, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, the IDF never used its white phosphorus munitions in Gaza before, despite numerous incursions with personnel and armor. Second, the repeated use of air-burst white phosphorus in populated areas until the last days of the operation reveals a pattern or policy of conduct rather than incidental or accidental usage. Third, the IDF was well aware of the effects white phosphorus has and the dangers it can pose to civilians. Fourth, if the IDF used white phosphorus as an obscurant, it failed to use available alternatives, namely smoke munitions, which would have held similar tactical advantages without endangering the civilian population. Fifth, in one of the cases documented in this report – the January 15 strike on the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City – the IDF kept firing white phosphorus despite repeated warnings from UN personnel about the danger to civilians. Under international humanitarian law, these circumstances demand the independent investigation of the use of white phosphorus and, if warranted, the prosecution of all those responsible for war crimes.
The IDF at first denied using white phosphorus in Gaza, and then said it was using all weapons in compliance with international law. It now says it is conducting an investigation, reportedly run by a colonel, into the use of white phosphorus. Given the IDF’s record on previous internal investigations, and the relatively low rank of the reported investigation leader, the inquiry’s objectivity remains in doubt.
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