For Immediate Release
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Israel: White Phosphorus Use Evidence of War Crimes
Indiscriminate Attacks Caused Needless Civilian Suffering
JERUSALEM - Israel's
repeated firing of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza during its recent
military campaign was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes, Human
Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 71-page report, "Rain of Fire: Israel's Unlawful Use
of White Phosphorus in Gaza," provides witness accounts of the
devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on civilians and
civilian property in Gaza. Human Rights Watch researchers in Gaza immediately
after hostilities ended found spent shells, canister liners, and dozens of
burnt felt wedges containing white phosphorus on city streets, apartment roofs,
residential courtyards, and at a United Nations school. The report also
presents ballistics evidence, photographs, and satellite imagery, as well as
documents from the Israeli military and government.
Militaries use white phosphorus primarily to obscure their
operations on the ground by creating thick smoke. It can also be used as an
the Israeli military didn't just use white phosphorus in open areas as a
screen for its troops," said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher
at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. "It fired white
phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops
weren't in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result,
civilians needlessly suffered and died."
The report documents a pattern or policy of white phosphorus use
that Human Rights Watch says must have required the approval of senior military
"For the needless civilian deaths caused by white phosphorus,
senior commanders should be held to account," Abrahams said.
On February 1, Human Rights Watch submitted detailed questions to
the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) about its white phosphorus use in Gaza. The IDF did not
provide responses, citing an internal inquiry being conducted by the Southern
In the recent Gaza
operations, Israeli forces frequently air-burst white phosphorus in 155mm
artillery shells in and near populated areas. Each air-burst shell spreads 116
burning white phosphorus wedges in a radius extending up to 125 meters from the
blast point. White phosphorus ignites and burns on contact with oxygen, and
continues burning at up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Celsius) until
nothing is left or the oxygen supply is cut. When white phosphorus comes into
contact with skin it creates intense and persistent burns.
When used properly in open areas, white phosphorus munitions are not
illegal, but the Human Rights Watch report concludes that the IDF repeatedly
exploded it unlawfully over populated neighborhoods, killing and wounding
civilians and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a
humanitarian aid warehouse, and a hospital.
Israel at first
denied it was using white phosphorus in Gaza
but, facing mounting evidence to the contrary, said that it was using all
weapons in compliance with international law. Later it announced an internal
investigation into possible improper white phosphorus use.
"Past IDF investigations into allegations of wrongdoing
suggest that this inquiry will be neither thorough nor impartial,"
Abrahams said. "That's why an international investigation is
required into serious laws of war violations by all parties."
The IDF knew that white phosphorus poses life-threatening dangers to
civilians, Human Rights Watch said. A medical report prepared during the recent
hostilities by the Israeli ministry of health said that white phosphorus
"can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the
skin, is inhaled or is swallowed." Burns on less than 10 percent of the
body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart, the
ministry report says. Infection is common and the body's absorption of
the chemical can cause serious damage to internal organs, as well as death.
If the IDF intended to use white phosphorus as a smokescreen for its
forces, it had a readily available non-lethal alternative to white phosphorus
- smoke shells produced by an Israeli company, Human Rights Watch
All of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found
were manufactured in the United
States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was
running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time. On January 4, Reuters
photographed IDF artillery units handling projectiles whose markings indicate
that they were produced in the United
States at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in
To explain the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, Israeli officials
have repeatedly blamed Hamas for using civilians as "human shields"
and for fighting from civilian sites. In the cases documented in the report,
Human Rights Watch found no evidence of Hamas using human shields in the
vicinity at the time of the attacks. In some areas Palestinian fighters appear
to have been present, but this does not justify the indiscriminate use of white
phosphorus in a populated area.
Human Rights Watch said that for multiple reasons it concluded that
the IDF had deliberately or recklessly used white phosphorus munitions in
violation of the laws of war. First, 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.
Second, the IDF was well aware of the effects of white phosphorus and the
dangers it poses to civilians. Third, the IDF failed to use safer available
alternatives for smokescreens.
The laws of war obligate states to investigate impartially
allegations of war crimes. The evidence available demands that Israel
investigate and prosecute as appropriate those who ordered or carried out
unlawful attacks using white phosphorus munitions, Human Rights Watch said.
The United States
government, which supplied Israel
with its white phosphorus munitions, should also conduct an investigation to
determine whether Israel
used it in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.
The Human Rights Watch report, "Rain of Fire: Israel's
Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,"
is available at:
For more analysis of IDF use of white
phosphorus and witness accounts, please see:
For photos and video of white phosphorus use
in Gaza, please
In New York,
Ella Moran: +1-212-216-1828; or firstname.lastname@example.org
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.