Jan 162009

So various organisations claim that Israel is using white phosphorous munitions in Gaza, and Israel denies their use. Or to be more specific denies the use of “WP” which is military slang for white phosphorous munitions intended for uses other than smoke (i.e. set things burning which might not otherwise burn – like people).

But Israel is using white phosphorous munitions; tell-tale pictures of shell casing designed for use as smoke screens have been released, and they have admitted using smoke screens. This makes their denial of white phosphorous (or more specifically “WP”) considerably foolish.

Whilst a nit-picker could claim their denial is in fact true, their denial relies on people understanding the difference between “WP” munitions and smoke-screen munitions. It would be far better to say that their use of white phosphorous is compatible with the various laws of war (the Geneva conventions, etc.).

But is it ? A spokesperson for Israel is hardly in the position to know. They may well know there is a policy to only use white phosphorous smoke screens in areas where civilians may be, and they may not be used to target civilians, but they do not know that Israeli armed forces have stuck to those policies. It is easy to imagine that some artillery unit has noticed that their smoke screen shells when “accidentally” fired too low are quite effective at setting fire to things and to carry on having “accidents” without letting their senior commanders know.

Even if that is not happening, and Israel is sticking to the letter of the laws of war, they may not be sticking to the spirit of the laws of war. The use of white phosphorous munitions in cvilian areas is banned to prevent horrific injuries to civilians; the use of smoke-screen weapons in civilian areas that may cause such injuries sounds like it should also be forbidden.

White phosphorous is a terror weapon in much the same vein as chemical weapons … it is not classified as a chemical weapon because armed forces find the smoke screen effect so useful. It is worth pointing out that one of the first uses of white phosphorous was by a terrorist organisation in the 19th Century (the Fenians).

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