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Israel’s Illegal Use of White Phosphorus During ‘Operation Cast Lead’

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Isabel Kershner wrote last week in the New York Times that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) plans to discontinue the use of white phosphorus munitions, adding that

Israeli and international human rights organizations accused Israel of using white phosphorus munitions improperly during Israel’s three-week military offensive against Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9. Such munitions are not prohibited under international law, but they are not supposed to be used in civilian areas, because white phosphorus is highly flammable and, like napalm, it can burn flesh. Israel maintained that its use of shells containing phosphorus did not violate international law.[1]

Human rights organizations “accused” Israel, Kershner wrote, as though this was merely an unproven accusation and not a well-documented, indisputable fact.  The “accusation” is that Israel used white phosphorus “improperly”, Kershner’s euphemism for “illegally”. The munitions are “not prohibited under international law, but they are not supposed to be used in civilian areas”, meaning that the use of white phosphorus in civilian areas is prohibited under international law. Finally, Israel maintains it “did not violate international law.”

The question one might find oneself asking after reading this is: Did Israel use the munitions in civilian areas, or not? We know the answer. So, then, why cannot Kershner bother herself to tell her readers that there is no question that Israel did in fact use the munitions in civilian areas? Why does she decline to point out to her readers that, by doing so, it is an incontrovertible fact that Israel violated international law with its use of white phosphorus?

Kershner also didn’t mention that Israel initially denied its use of white phosphorus, which would be an behavior had its use of the munitions been legal. The London Times reported on January 5, 2009 that despite Israel’s denials, “the tell-tale shells could be seen spreading tentacles of thick white smoke to cover the troops’ advance.”[2] On January 8, The Times reported again that photographic proof of Israel’s use of white phosphorus munitions had emerged, “despite official denials” by the IDF. The Times had identified munitions bearing the designation M825A1, made in the USA. Confronted with the evidence, an IDF spokeswoman lied, “This is what we call a quiet shell—it is empty, it has no explosives and no white phosphorus. There is nothing inside it”.[3]

By January 10, Human Rights Watch called upon Israel to “stop using white phosphorus in military operations in densely populated areas of Gaza”, including Gaza City. “White phosphorous can burn down houses and cause horrific burns when it touches the skin,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at HRW.[4] Noting that when white phosphorus munitions burst in the air, they spread “116 burning wafers over an area between 125 and 250 meters in diameter”, HRW added that “the use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas of Gaza violates the requirement under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life.” The IDF continued to deny that it was using white phosphorus, HRW also pointed out, despite the fact that the distinctive air-bursting munitions had been photographed being used over populated areas of Gaza.[5]

“I can tell you with certainty that white phosphorus is absolutely not being used”, an IDF spokesperson had initially lied. Several days later, and two days after the HRW report, after photographs of the weapon being used in Gaza had appeared widely in the media, the official Israeli position became: “Any munitions that Israel is using are in accordance with international law. Israel does not specify the types of munitions or the types of operations it is conducting.”

CNNKershner perhaps took her cue from earlier reporting. CNN at the time likewise characterized Israel’s use of white phosphorus as merely an accusation with the headline “Group accuses Israel of firing white phosphorus into Gaza”.[6] The characterization came despite the fact that the article was accompanied online with an image of the weapon in use, clear photographic proof that the HRW “accusation” was true and that Israeli officials were lying.

In a similar fashion, the caption of a photograph on a BBC report unmistakably showing white phosphorus munitions bursting over populated areas read “Human Rights Watch says pictures like this point to white phosphorus use, but Israel denies this”. The BBC article disingenuously added, “There is no way independently to explain the contradiction between the Israeli military’s denial” and the reports that Israel had been using the weapon.[7] Unimaginatively, the BBC failed to realize the simplest and most obvious explanation: that Israeli officials were lying—a fact proven beyond any reasonable doubt by the very photograph the BBC included with the article.


The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem observed that under international law, “such [incendiary] weapons may only be used against military objects. When the military object is located within a civilian area, the use of phosphorus is absolutely prohibited.” While Israel had not signed the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, the specific prohibition was nevertheless “based on two customary principles of international law, which are binding on Israel. The first is the prohibition on using weapons that cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians, and the second is the prohibition on using weapons which by their nature cause unnecessary suffering.”[8]

An ICRC official also confirmed to the Associated Press that Israel was in fact using white phosphorous munitions. His comments made headlines in the U.S. because he had also said, “But it’s not very unusual to use phosphorus to create smoke or illuminate a target. We have no evidence to suggest it’s being used in any other way.” The widely published AP article was misleadingly titled “ICRC: Israel’s use of white phosphorus not illegal”, despite the fact that the official quoted, Peter Herby, hadn’t actually said that. Rather, he had indicated that additional information was required before a judgment could be made as to whether Israel’s use of the weapon was legal or not. The AP report noted in the third to last paragraph that Herby had also “said evidence is still limited because of the difficulties of gaining access to Gaza”, but the distinction was no doubt lost upon many readers, even among those who actually read past the false headline.[9]

Apparently, Herby had not seen any of the numerous photographs that had already appeared in the media or spoken with the credible witnesses of the weapons being used over heavily populated residential areas, and thus illegally. In another example, the Christian Science Monitor repeated Herby’s comments to the AP under the headline, “Red Cross: No evidence Israel is using white phosphorus illegally”, despite its own admission that “Monitor staff writer Robert Marquand reported yesterday that human rights groups have witnessed white phosphorus munitions exploding over populated area [sic] of Gaza” (emphasis added).[10] The headline was made even more egregious given the fact that in a separate article published the same day, Marquand reported (emphasis added):

Marc Garlasco has been on the northern border of Gaza for the past five days watching what he says are white phosphorus munitions exploding over a crowded refugee camp. Mr. Garlasco, a senior military analyst for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that the way Israel is using the incendiary device is illegal…. “The IDF acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorus,” IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday in response to a query. But Garlasco says that phosphorus is clearly being used in the Jabaliya refugee camp, one of the most crowded areas in Gaza. “I can see them; we are very certain, whatever the Israeli Defense Forces may say, that white phosphorus is being used….”[11]

About the Author

Jeremy R. Hammond

Jeremy R. Hammond
Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst and a recipient of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. He is the founding editor of Foreign Policy Journal and the author of Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian economics in the financial crisis and The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination: The Struggle for Palestine and the Roots of the Israeli-Arab Conflict. His forthcoming book is on the contemporary U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 
  • aaheart

    Khan Younis: “We could hear their bodies burning,” 27-year-old Fadia Al Najjar recounts.

    As Israeli planes poured what is now confirmed as DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive) munitions on Gaza residents, Fadia recounts the night of terror her and her family endured.

    “We were terrified. We thought we were going to burn to death,” she said.

  • Alex K

    Pure Evil ! The fascist state of Israel makes international law irrelevant and not even the US dares criticize.. Something is very wrong when any nation/s, simply ignores international law so flagrantly.

  • arrow

    Great Article,

    it shows US hypocrisy when Muslim’s interests are involved where have been framed by false flag operation to destabilize and partition Muslim countries to erect “greater Israel” which is called “New world Order”. I am sure they will take this wish into their greaves, one by one.

    You should have mentioned what Obama said when Israel used phosphorus bomb on human being, the Palestinians. He said:

    {Israel has a RIGHT TO DENFEND ITSELF.}

    Where is ICC?

    Now, the “rebels”, CIA trained terrorists, have used chemical weapon to frame Assad. Obama is trying to frame Assad with chemical weapon as Bush did with Saddam.
    The world knows US government in 1980s gave chemical weapon and WMD to Saddam who invaded Iran on US government’s green light, to kill Iranians by thousands and smaller number of Kurds ,in order to weaken Iranian government for regime change which still is going. Reagan denied it, same as Obama and George Bush regarding Iraq, Libya and now Syria.

    Obama lies to keep the phony “war on terror” alive. To prove that there is “danger” out there to force Americans to submission, the gov. has created “Muslim terrorists” through funding and training for its proxy war against Muslims. They have killed MILLIONS AND MILLIONS OF INNOCENT MUSLIMS, including children all over the world through invasion and proxy war. Actually, Muslims all over the world have been killed by US and its allies, NATO, to expand US hegemonic control over the world which IS NOTHING BUT AN IRON CAGE. It is the police state near you.

    Obama with the help of his Zionist bankers and WMD calling on Assad to step down or will be overthrown or assassinated by his terrorists where he and his supporters, phony “left” and phony “progressives” call “rebels” in Syria.

    He is responsible for thousands of deaths in Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mali and many other countries.

    Where is ICC lawyer? Why do they go after victims such as Al bashir and Gaddafi and now Assad, and leave all the war criminals and baby killers at alone? Why ICC lawyers are silent? ICC is criminal and racist and a western tool for regime change. The petty ICC lawyers must be overthrown by force.

  • Danash

    The media reported:

    {Israeli warplanes launched airstrikes against targets inside Syria on Friday, U.S. officials told NBC News.}


    People from all over the world must go to Syria to fight agains the evils to help Assad. Russia and china have sold Syria like they did Libya. This is happening after the war criminal, John Kerry went to Russia. Who is going to arrest all these war criminals? Are Americans going to cooperate with evils after the false flag operation? Are they going to support the police state?

    We are fed up with the criminal states and their ignorant population. Obama is a war criminal. He, like Israel, has violated all the laws on books. This shows the first black presdent is as savage as the white before him IF NOT MORE.

  • arrow

    The war criminal and the baby killer supported Israel military strike on Syria, another violation of international law, and bought the condemnation of the world for himself and Israel. The first black president wages proxy war using his dog to attack Syria to provoke Assad into a bigger war.

    {Barack Obama has said Israel has the right to launch airstrikes on Syria, one day after the Israeli regime’s second airstrike on the country this year.}

    To prepare the dumb population, first, executed another False Flag Operation to make sure gullible people are in line.
    According to the war criminals, the Jewish state has a right to launch an airstrike on Syria to protect the “chosen people”. The cowards can use the same “logic” to do the same in Iran and claim we want to resolve the situation peacefully not through the war and buy the laugh of everyone with more than two brain cells. He has proven many times that not only he is an assassin, but a liar as well. He said:

    “What I have said in the past and I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry” to resistance movements like Hezbollah, Obama stated.”

    We recently read the following news:

    {The Defense Department is expected to finalize a $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates next week that will provide missiles, warplanes and troop transports to help them counter any future threat from Iran.}

    The savages are telling the world that only US with 45 percent of world military budget, and Israel, the only country with nuclear weapon in the M.E “have the right to protect themselves”.
    Who wants to live under the police state?

    The first Jewish president, Obama, and the “jewish state” were condemned by the former US official:
    {Lawrence Wilkerson, the former senior US official says the use of chemical weapons in Syria might have been a “false flag operation” conducted by Israel to incriminate the Syrian government.}

    Wilkerson exposed the first black president and Israelis’ lies:

    “What I’m hearing from the intelligence community is that that evidence is really flakey,” Wilkerson said in an interview with Current TV on Thursday.

  • servocad

    Even if Israel was throwing chocolate wafers upon the Arab terrorists,Mr.Hammonds ( a world -infamous antisemite and supporter of all antisemitic /nazi groups) would accuse Israel of war crimes!And-he never allows the facts to confuse him!
    Even if Israel did use white phosphorus bombs against Hamas and other villains,it had the right to do so;every means is legal in order to fight terrorists.
    As about the civilian casualties-well it is all Hamas’s fault.Hamas,as all other Arab terrorists, uses civilian population as a human shield.
    So if they want to protect civilians from the bombs,all they have to do is stop using civilians as a human shield.
    Facit: ALL means are legal in order to wipe out Hamas and other nazis!

    • Jeremy R. Hammond

      I can assure readers that if Israel dropped chocolate over populated civilian areas of Gaza rather than white phosphorus, I would not accuse Israel of committing a war crime for doing so. But this strawman argument, along with the ad hominem and other fallacies, is among the more amusing I’ve seen of late. Who knew that I was “world infamous”? Like the infamous El Guapo. Even more than famous!

    • Jeremy R. Hammond

      I can assure readers that if Israel dropped chocolate over populated civilian areas of Gaza rather than white phosphorus, I would not accuse Israel of committing a war crime for doing so. But this strawman argument, along with the ad hominem and other fallacies, is among the more amusing I’ve seen of late. Who knew that I was “world infamous”? Like the infamous El Guapo. Even more than famous! Wow!

    • Mike Thompson

      I can`t agree that servocad`s comments are “strawman” Jeremy.

      “Rabid” would be a more accurate description.

      I find the articles published in the foreign Policy Journal a refreshingly balanced alternative to mainstream US media that willingly panders to unthinking bigots when it comes to reporting Israeli actions.

      Squealing about Iran`s nuclear power program, neatly deflects comment from the US supply to Israel of submarine based delivery systems for Israels nuclear warheads, it`s a crazy world!

      • Jeremy R. Hammond

        I was just referring to how he lies about things Prof. Falk has said and then argues against his own fabrications, which is the fallacy of strawman argumentation, whatever else one chooses to call it.

        • Mike Thompson

          Thank`s Jeremy.

          Strawman is an expression unknown in the U.K. We do sometimes use “Aunt Sally” to describe someone using similar Logic. Two countries divided by the same language eh!

  • Fida Ahmed Advocate

    The question is that why should the US media try to cover up Israeli war crimes? Is the US Israel? Is the US media controlled by Jews? Or both?
    When will the truth come out? Never? What a ‘free world’! To hell with you!

    • Jeremy R. Hammond

      The answer is none of the above, but rather because the U.S. is complicit in Israel’s war crimes. Hence the motivation to help cover them up.

      • Fida Ahmed Advocate

        I wish there are more right minded people like you to show the ‘power intoxicated’ US the inhumanity of its illicit relationship with Israel.

  • Thoros Myr

    So what? If Mohammedan scum are being burned alive, this is a benefit for civilization.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    You say, “This article is example of blatant lie and cheap propaganda.” Yet you don’t point to even a single error in fact or logic in it. And from your comments, it seems you didn’t even read it.

    • simla

      You claimed that “it is an incontrovertible fact that Israel violated international law with its use of white phosphorus”.

      Its absolutely wrong.

      1. There is no any international law which bans using WP.
      2. There is law which bans using incendiary weapons in civilian area, but Israel did NOT use any incendiary weapons at all.
      3. The round in question M825A1 is a smoke round, therefore is 100% legal anywhere, both in civilian and open areas.

      a quote from Geneva conventions:

      “(b) Incendiary weapons do not include:
      (i) Munitions which may have incidental incendiary effects, such as illuminants, tracers, smoke or signalling systems;”


      • Jeremy R. Hammond

        (1) There absolutely is international law which bans indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Needless to say, this includes use of WP in populated areas.

        (2a) See (1). (2b) See (3).

        (3a) Correction: that is not from the Geneva Conventions. It is from Protocol III to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. (3b) Whether classified as “incendiary” or not, its indiscriminate use is a violation of international law. (3c) You are trying to twist the letter of the law to get around the spirit of the law. Obviously, the purpose here is to protect civilians. Any reading of this law that argues it is permissible to use WP munitions to attack civilians is on its face invalid. The definition provided in Protocol III also states:

        1. “Incendiary weapon” means 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.

        It is simple. This goes to the question of purpose. If used as a smokescreen, WP does not fall under this definition of “incendiary weapon”. But, naturally, if intended for use as a weapon to set fire to objects or cause burn injury to persons, it is.

        • simla

          WP =/= indiscriminate attack. Thats ur baseless invention. Smoke WP is actually saving lives.

          There is also nothing about “intention” in the law. Its about the DESIGN. M825A1 is DESIGNED as a smoke weapon. Therefore its absolutely 200% legal full stop.

          • Jeremy R. Hammond

            The use of white phosphorus in populated areas is by definition indiscriminate. How bizarre to assert that doing so saves lives.

            The intent of lawmakers is, needless to say, important for interpreting law. WP is designed as a smokescreen. It is not designed to be used as a weapon. And when used as designed, it is perfectly legal. However, when used as a weapon and particularly to target civilian objects, its use is a war crime. It cannot possibly have been the intent of the treaty’s drafters to somehow legalize the use of WP munitions against civilian populations. What an asinine and nonsensical interpretation!

          • simla

            “The use of white phosphorus in populated areas is by definition indiscriminate.”

            No, thats your baseless invention.

            “How bizarre to assert that doing so saves lives.”

            Smoke WP rounds reduce use of regular high explosive rounds which are million times more deadly. Thus they are saving lives.

            “WP is designed as a smokescreen. It is notdesigned to be used as a weapon. And when used as designed, it is perfectly legal. However, when used as a weapon and particularly to target civilian objects, its use is a war crime.”

            There are two WP smoke rounds in NATO arsenals: M110 and M825. M110 has dual use: smoke and kill. M825 however has only ONE use: SMOKE. Israel used only M825. Therefore its perfectly legal.

            If Israel used M110 (like US did in Fallijah) then u could ask whether it is for kill or for smoke. But Israel did not use it.

          • Jeremy R. Hammond

            No, thats your baseless invention.

            No, it isn’t. Under international law, weapons that cannot be directed at a military objective or are “of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction” are by definition indiscriminate, and attacks on civilian persons or objects are a war crime.

            Smoke WP rounds reduce use of regular high explosive rounds which are million times more deadly. Thus they are saving lives.

            By this logic, dropping a 1,000 lb. bomb on a civilian residential area would “save lives” since a nuclear weapon is more deadly but wasn’t used. The fallacy here, of course, is that it isn’t necessary to cause any harm to civilians. There is the choice of causing no harm. There is the option of dropping no weapon on civilians, which would mean zero deaths. Needless to say, compared to that option, targeting populated areas with 1,000 lb. bombs (or WP munitions) obviously causes death and injury to civilians and damage to property.

            Israel used only M825. Therefore its perfectly legal.

            Yes, when used as a smokescreen. But, again, when used to target civilian persons or objects, it is a war crime.

    • Cpt_Justice
      • Jeremy R. Hammond

        I advise you to actually read the article before trying to respond to it.

        • Cpt_Justice

          OK, how did what I post not address the lies you put in the article?

          • Jeremy R. Hammond

            Well, why don’t you just read it and find out.

  • Jeremy R. Hammond

    1) Again, no, international law does not allow the use of WP to target civilian persons or objects. Under international law, this is forbidden.

    2) Yes, I am saying not murdering civilians and/or destroying civilian objects is an option. Obviously, choosing to use a weapon indiscriminately causes more harm than not choosing to do so.

    3) WP can be used in ways not intended by the manufacturers. It can be used to target civilian persons or objects. Which is, of course, illegal.

  • Javed Mir

    –the use of white phosphorus–

    How the so called international law is modified to justify the use of this acid!