Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jerusalem - Sabah Abu Halimah's tears trickled down her discolored cheeks. The skin on her upper chest and neck were pockmarked with black spots and fingers poking out from between heavy bandages looked raw.
As Abu Halimah lay in a bed at Gaza's Shifa Hospital on Tuesday, she described how a "ball of fire" engulfed her house in the northern Gaza village of Beit Lahiya. Abu Halimah said her extended family of 18 people were cowering in the living room when rockets fell.
"I was breastfeeding my baby girl when suddenly something exploded, and I heard my son calling 'Mom, fire!' I tried to stand up but the blast seemed to hit my head, which felt like it was on fire. I think I must have fainted," she said. "When I woke up and looked across the room, I saw the blackened bodies of my husband and my teenage son like pieces of charcoal. Both their heads were severed completely from their bodies. Even their blood wasn't red, it was black. And my baby daughter was dead."
Down the corridor, Basel El-Assali was comforting his 16-year-old son, Mahmoud, who had severe burns to his face and chest, caused when a fire bomb with "yellow light and white smoke" hit their home in Jebaliya north of Gaza.
"I saw a huge ball of fire falling from the sky which became other smaller balls with the white smoke," he said. "My other son was outside the house. He couldn't get close to help his brother because the fire was burning him and the smoke was choking him."
Doctors at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City said they had never seen such burn cases before.
"These are very strange types of injuries and burns. We don't know the type of weapons used which cause these injuries," said Nafaz Abu Shaaban, the hospital's head of plastic surgery for the past 20 years. "The cases we received in the last few days are not usual burns. It's severe, massive burns, very deep burns. The site of the injury continues to produce smoke and burning for a long time, even after dressing," he said.
Shaaban said a visiting doctor who knows about such burn injuries "told us that this might be from the use of white phosphorous bombs."
"From my experience, these are deep burns as a result of the white phosphorous, which causes damage to the skin, muscles and the blood vessels," said Mohammed El-Abbade, a plastic surgery specialist from Jordan.
On Sunday, Human Rights Watch accused Israel of illegally using white phosphorus shells in its conflict with Hamas.
"Human Rights Watch has analyzed photographs taken by the media on the Israel-Gaza border showing Israeli artillery units handling fused WP artillery shells, as well as video of air bursts over Gaza followed by tendrils of smoke and flame that are highly indicative of WP use," the organization said in a statement. "The potential for harm to civilians is magnified by Gaza's high population density, among the highest in the world."
But Israel has rejected such charges.
On Tuesday, Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi denied the Israeli military is doing anything illegal.
"The Israel Defense Forces act only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorous," Ashkenazi told the Israeli Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Tel Aviv.
Israeli officials also point out that it is Hamas fighters who are acting illegally by launching rocket attacks on Israeli towns rather than specific military targets.
The controversy over white phosphorous shells
Under international law, white phosphorous shells can be legally used to illuminate large areas at night or provide cover for advancing ground troops by creating a smokescreen.
When fired, fragments of phosphorous, sometimes known as "shake and bake," burst into flames on contact with air, causing fires, destroying buildings and burning those who come in contact with its napalm-like agents.
According to Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, such incendiary weapons are prohibited against "any military objective located within a concentration of civilians." Some human rights groups are pushing to ban the shells by re-classifying them as a chemical weapon.
Neither the United States nor Israel is a signatory to Protocol III.
Israel has admitted using white phosphorus during its 34-day war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, while the United States reportedly used the shells in Iraq during the battle for the city of Fallujah in 2004.