The London Times has revealed today that thanks to photographic evidence, there is now a strong suspicion that Israel has used phosphorus, an extremely toxic gas, during its air raids on the Gaza Strip.

Nafez Abu Shaban, the head of the burns unit at al-Shifa hospital, said: “I am not familiar with phosphorus but many of the patients wounded in the past weeks have strange burns. They are very deep and not like burns we used to see.” Phosphorus is an element part of the nitrogen group, and due to its high reactivity, is only found in phosphate rocks. It is mostly used in fertilizers and explosives.  A 2000 article by John Emsley quotes phosphorus as being used as a weapon of war as early as World War I, during which it was used in “special incendiary bullets” meant to fire at Zeppelins. In World War II, it was used in the composition of Molotov Cocktails, that revealed its extreme danger and toxicity to the human skin.  According to the piece, “People covered in it have been known to commit suicide due to the torment.” Mostly, phosphorus is a neurotoxin used as a nerve agent.  Chronic white phosphorus poisoning leads to necrosis of the jaw called “phossy jaw ” (a disease caused by exposure to phosphorus and resulting in “painful toothaches and swelling of the gums. Over time, the jaw bone would begin to abcess, a process which was both extremely painful and disfiguring to the patient”.)  The pathophysiology of human exposure to phosphorus is said to result in “painful chemical burn injuries. […]  These burns carry a higher risk of morbidity and mortality. White phosphorus […]  is believed to have rapid dermal penetration once particles are embedded under the skin. This deep absorption can result in heart, liver, and kidney damage. It has also been postulated that, because of its enhanced lipid solubility, these injuries result in delayed wound healing.”

Under international law, the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of poisonous weapons during war. The 1993 Convention on the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and on their destruction  entered into force on 29 April 1997. The ICRC is non-ambiguous when it comes to the use of chemical weapons: “It should be emphasized that in situations of armed conflict this absolute prohibition applies to all biological and chemical agents, whether labelled ‘lethal’ or ‘non-lethal’. For example, even the use of riot control agents which is permitted for domestic riot control purposes is prohibited in situations of armed conflict.” In 1996, the ICRC judges unanimously concluded that the use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.”

Israel Defense Forces soldier stacking up bombs containing high toxic gas phosphorus (© The Times)

Israel Defense Forces soldier stacking up bombs containing high toxic gas phosphorus (© The Times)

Where and when did Israel manage to build those weapons? It is reported to be an American model.  Quoting the Times, “The Times has identified stockpiles of white phosphorus (WP) shells from high-resolution images taken of Israel Defence Forces (IDF) artillery units on the Israeli-Gaza border this week. The pale blue 155mm rounds are clearly marked with the designation M825A1, an American-made WP munition. The shell is an improved version with a more limited dispersion of the phosphorus, which ignites on contact with oxygen, and is being used by the Israeli gunners to create a smoke screen on the ground.”  When the first Times report was released on Monday (January 5th), an IDF spokesman promptly responded that Israel was only using weapons allowed under international law.  As you can see on the photo, there is no mistake as to the M825A1 marking on the bombshells.  Once presented with this piece of evidence, an IDF spokeswoman insisted that those shells were empty and did not contain any chemical material meant to harm the Palestinian population on the ground.  Israel tried to protect its use of phosphorus from the Third Protocol On Conventional Weapons by explaining that the gas was not used directly against the population, but only as a means to create a smoke screen protecting Israeli soldiers during an attack ; this way, those bomb shells could not be listed under the listed prohibited incendiary weapons. Human Rights Watch’ Mark Galasco, speaking to The Times, explained his concern: “Israel is failing to take all feasible steps to avoid civilian loss of life and property by using WP in densely populated urban areas. This concern is amplified given the technique evidenced in media photographs of air-bursting WP projectiles at relatively low levels, seemingly to maximise its incendiary effect.” However, Human Rights Watch has yet to find its own evidence of incendiary weapons.

Cautious of its precarious position of unpopularity in the international community, Israel is keen to insist on its lawful use of artillery and sol-air missiles despite an extremely dangerous loss of civilian lives on the Palestinian side (as this blog is being published, 702 dead – among which 230 children and 100 women – and  3,100 injured were counted).  This uncanny discrepancy in numbers – Israel has only mourned the loss of four soldiers in Gaza so far – has prompted several independant monitoring committees to inspect the suspect burn wounds reported in Gaza hospitals.  Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian war surgery specialist working in Gaza, told The Times he believes a “dense metal extract” could have used intense explosions conducive to the reported injuries.  He said: “Those inside the perimeter of this weapon’s power zone will be torn completely apart. We have seen numerous amputations that we suspect have been caused by this.”

It’s not illegal until you get caught.