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Human Rights Watch sees signs of white phosphorus use in Gaza

The expert finds shells that released the burning white wafers over the farm town of Khozaa during the Israeli incursion.

February 15, 2009|Ashraf Khalil

KHOZAA, GAZA STRIP — The reddish-brown scorch marks are still visible on the roofs and cream-colored stucco walls.

Villagers here in this southern Gaza farm town say their neighborhood was showered with hundreds of chunks of burning white phosphorus, a controversial substance commonly used as a smoke screen to cover troop movements, over a three-day Israeli incursion in Khozaa last month.

Majid Najar said the phosphorus started fires all around the home where he had taken shelter along with 20 relatives. He said he was next door helping evacuate a pair of elderly neighbors when he felt the impact of something striking his home.

An empty shell casing had punched through the building's roof and an interior wall, striking his wife, Hannan, in the chest and killing her immediately.

On Jan. 24, a research team from Human Rights Watch visited Khozaa. Researcher Marc Garlasco, a weapons expert, examined the markings on the artillery shell that killed Hannan Najar.

"This is clearly white phosphorus," said Garlasco, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. "See those markings? PB. This was made in Pine Bluff, Arkansas."

In the streets and yards around Najar's home, Garlasco found remnants of several more phosphorus shells. Khozaa, he concluded, had seen the heaviest use of the controversial munitions in the three-week Israeli offensive.

Garlasco reconstructed the X-shaped tray that holds 160 phosphorus wafers per shell. When the tray ejects, the wafers disperse over a 150- to 250-yard radius, depending on the height of the airburst.

The burning phosphorus puts out a dense white fog and causes intense chemical burns if it comes in contact with human skin.

Its use as an offensive weapon in residential areas is internationally banned. Israel isn't a signatory to the phosphorus treaty, but in response to questions from The Times, the Israeli military released a statement saying that it "only uses weapons permitted by law."

The statement said, "In response to the claims of NGOs and claims in the foreign press relating to the use of phosphorus weapons, and in order to remove any ambiguity, an investigative team has been established in the Southern Command to look into the issue."

Amnesty International has declared Israel's use of white phosphorus in Gaza "indiscriminate" and a war crime. Human Rights Watch is still preparing its report on the conflict, but the group's senior emergencies researcher, Fred Abrahams, said firing phosphorus shells in a populated area "is inherently indiscriminate because it spreads over such a wide area."

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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