wattPhosphorus is a particularly incendiary weapon. When exposed to air, the chemicals ignite, producing flames with burning temperatures as high as 1499°F. The thick smoke it produced served as a convenient cover for troops. But for civilians caught in the rain, it can cause serious fires and deep burns.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday accused Israel of using white phosphorus munitions in ongoing military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. The accusations made by Human Rights Watch and based on verified footage and witness accounts of October 10 and 11 have been denied by the Israeli military, saying they are “unquestionably false”.
Israel has previously been accused of using white phosphorus against civilians. During the Gaza war in September 2008 (codenamed “Operation Cast Lead”), the Israeli military admitted to using munitions containing toxic substances in Gaza, but denied that doing so violated its legal obligations. While using white phosphorus as a smoke screen or beacon is legally considered legal, international law prohibits its use in densely populated areas. In a place like Gaza, one of the most densely populated places in the world, such an area is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid.
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, spoke with TIME by phone to discuss how they verified the allegations, the impact of white phosphorus, and what its use means for the millions of people living in Gaza .
TIME: This isn’t the first time Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using white phosphorus, right??
Omar Shakir: Yes, Human Rights Watch has documented the use of white phosphorus by the Israeli armed forces in previous conflicts in Gaza, including in 2009. In fact, there have been some lawsuits in the Israeli court system, all the way up to the High Court. The military said it would no longer use white phosphorus in densely populated areas except in a few unspecified circumstances.
It has been used in previous conflicts but certainly not in the last few conflicts we have seen over the past few years.
Can you walk us through Human Rights Watch’s process for verifying whether white phosphorus was used?
We have been following (the situation in Gaza) closely. We have a team on the ground, our team is reviewing social media, conducting interviews. So we have a process that is divided into several steps. When we see these films, the first thing we do is run it through our ammo experts. Some of the footage we saw wasn’t enough for us to make a claim.
For Gaza Port and Lebanon, our ammunition experts were able to make a conclusive assessment that it is white phosphorus, but we still need to do two things: one is to verify the authenticity of the video, so we conducted a digital investigation and went through the verification time, date and location of the process; we were able to obtain GPS coordinates based on the process at that location. The other is that, in Gaza, we wanted to be able to talk to people in the area and maybe experience what it looks like, smells like, etc. As a result, we were able to contact two people in the area whose experiences were consistent with where white phosphorus was being used.
Those are the three steps: Our dedicated team of munitions experts review the footage, verify the location and time of the footage, and then speak to witnesses in the affected area who provide accounts based on the questions we ask. We’ve done this in other environments, which allowed us to confirm that what we were experiencing was consistent with what we saw in the verified footage.
What exactly does white phosphorus do?
White phosphorus has many uses. It can essentially be used to signal, blur, or mark. Or it can be used as a weapon to burn people and objects. But most of all it has an incendiary effect. Basically, what happens is that it ignites when it is exposed to atmospheric oxygen, and continues to burn until it is starved of oxygen or exhausted.It can generate heat up to 800°+ degrees Celsius or around 1500°
Fahrenheit. It produces light and smoke. On contact, it will burn a person to the bone through thermal and chemical action because it is highly soluble in fat and therefore human flesh. Therefore, it can aggravate the wound even after treatment. It can enter the bloodstream and cause organ failure. Even bandaged wounds can reignite when the dressing is removed and exposed to oxygen again. Even minor burns can be fatal. It can cause long-term pain due to scarring and physical disability. Not to mention the trauma of it all.
It can also burn buildings, not just individuals. So you may encounter situations where houses, fields, and civilian objects are burned down.
in a statement this Washington postThe Israeli military said that “it is currently unclear that weapons containing white phosphorus were used in the Gaza Strip.”What do you think about this denial??
Weapons containing white phosphorus. There’s almost an acknowledgment implicit in that, because, as I said, white phosphorus can also be used for signaling, for masking – not necessarily as a weapon. The wording of their statement was carefully considered.
Assume that Israel uses white phosphorus within its legal capabilities, as it claimed to have done in 2009. Is it safe to use in a place like Gaza?
no. It is prohibited in densely populated areas. I mean, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on earth. There is no safe place in Gaza. Another thing worth noting is that there are readily available non-lethal alternatives to white phosphorus cartridges, including some produced by Israeli companies that have been used by the Israeli military in the past. They have the same effect and significantly reduce harm to civilians. So there’s really no reason to use it in densely populated areas.
How does the use of white phosphorus address other serious challenges currently affecting the people of Gaza?
Obviously, this raises significant legal issues, but there are many other issues going on, including power outages, food and water outages. The humanitarian situation is dire and thousands of bombs have been dropped on Gaza residents, destroying buildings, communities and families. Israel has a long history of targeting civilian infrastructure with disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks.
This publication received significant attention from the media and others, which is important. But it’s also important to understand the many other issues going on at the same time.
This interview has been edited for style and length.