White Phosphorus: And so the Israeli argument goes…

On January 10, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement: "Israel appeared to be using white phosphorus as an ‘obscurant’ (a chemical used to hide military operations), a permissible use in principle under international humanitarian law (the laws of war). However, White Phosphorus (WP) has a significant, incidental, incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire".

As witnessed by Marc Garlasco, Senior Military Analyst at HRW, Israeli tanks were carrying "American manufactured white phosphorous rounds that are fused." He clarified that WP is "fused" only when it is to be used.

Think back to the images you have seen of the munitions being fired into Gaza these last three weeks. The ones that look like fireworks are the particular brand of illegal incendiary weaponry to which HRW refers.

WP can cause injury in the following three ways: burning deep into tissue, being inhaled as a smoke and/or being ingested. Unlike fire, WP carries a greater risk of mortality because it stops burning only once it is deprived of oxygen or until it completely consumes itself (since the flame produced is the WP burning itself into non-existence).

The use of WP to create smokescreens in an open space is acceptable under international law. But, Protocol III, Article 2.1 of the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on The Use of Incendiary Weapons stipulates that "it is prohibited in all circumstances to make the civilian population as such […] the object of attack by incendiary weapons," and Article 2.2 rules that "it is prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons."

Incendiary weapons are defined as "any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat or combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target."

Two things to note. First, that Gaza is approximately three times the size of Disney World, slightly less than the size of Seattle, and a little over a third of the size of New York City. Suffocated within its 360 sq km are 1.5 million Palestinians. This means that it is, beyond a shadow of any doubt, a highly dense civilian area, among the world’s most densely populated cities.

Second, that Israel controls Gaza’s airspace, water and land borders is a reality that renders Israel the occupying power and so, by legal international standards, makes it responsible for the safety of Palestinian civilians within Gaza.

Suspending the reality that nearly half of the more than 900 Palestinians dead and 4,000 injured are children and women, let us focus on the above two facts alone: Israel is the occupying power and Gaza is among the most densely populated cities in the world. The alleged use of white phosphorous can not then be considered an acceptable use of artillery by Israel; neither in its capacity as the superior occupying force whose legally binding duty it is to protect the civilians under its occupation, nor in its claim that it is targeting only Hamas agents.

When the question of ‘are you using white phosphorous against the population of Gaza?’ was put directly to Israeli spokespeople, they refused to answer and instead opted to indicate that the weapons they use all comply with international law. Although this may technically be true, the concern here isn’t solely the sort of munitions used, but the environment and the purpose of their usage. It is within this critical analysis of munitions usage that the nature of Israel’s use of weaponry can then be identified as illegal.

That Israeli spokespersons’ continued assertion that this is not a war on civilians, but rather one against Hamas cannot, within this context alone, be believed. With piercing clarity one can see through the fog of manufactured reality to identify that Israel – by using this one particular chemical agent – is indeed actively and purposefully targeting the civilian population in Gaza.