White Phosphorus: And so the Israeli argument goes...

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

On January 10, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement: "Israel appeared to be using white phosphorus as an ‘obscurant' (a chemical used to hide military operations), a permissible use in principle under international humanitarian law (the laws of war). However, white phosphorus has a significant, incidental, incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire".

As witnessed by Marc Garlasco, Senior Military Analyst at HRW, Israeli tanks were carrying "American manufactured white phosphorous rounds that are fused." He clarified that WP is "fused" only when it is to be used.

Think back to the images you have seen of the munitions being fired into Gaza these last three weeks. The ones that look like fireworks are the particular brand of illegal incendiary weaponry to which HRW refers.

WP can cause injury in the following three ways: burning deep into tissue, being inhaled as a smoke and/or being ingested. Unlike fire, WP carries a greater risk of mortality because it stops burning only once it is deprived of oxygen or until it completely consumes itself (since the flame produced is the WP burning itself into non-existence).

The use of WP to create smokescreens in an open space is acceptable under international law. But, Protocol III, Article 2.1 of the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on The Use of Incendiary Weapons stipulates that "it is prohibited in all circumstances to make the civilian population as such [...] the object of attack by incendiary weapons," and Article 2.2 rules that "it is prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons."

Incendiary weapons are defined as "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."

Two things to note. First, that Gaza is approximately three times the size of Disney World, slightly less than the size of Seattle, and a little over a third of the size of New York City. Suffocated within its 360 sq km are 1.5 million Palestinians. This means that it is, beyond a shadow of any doubt, a highly dense civilian area, among the world's most densely populated cities.

Second, that Israel controls Gaza's airspace, water and land borders is a reality that renders Israel the occupying power and so, by legal international standards, makes it responsible for the safety of Palestinian civilians within Gaza.

Suspending the reality that nearly half of the more than 900 Palestinians dead and 4,000 injured are children and women, let us focus on the above two facts alone: Israel is the occupying power and Gaza is among the most densely populated cities in the world. The alleged use of white phosphorous can not then be considered an acceptable use of artillery by Israel; neither in its capacity as the superior occupying force whose legally binding duty it is to protect the civilians under its occupation, nor in its claim that it is targeting only Hamas agents.

When the question of 'are you using white phosphorous against the population of Gaza?' was put directly to Israeli spokespeople, they refused to answer and instead opted to indicate that the weapons they use all comply with international law. Although this may technically be true, the concern here isn't solely the sort of munitions used, but the environment and the purpose of their usage. It is within this critical analysis of munitions usage that the nature of Israel's use of weaponry can then be identified as illegal.

That Israeli spokespersons' continued assertion that this is not a war on civilians, but rather one against Hamas cannot, within this context alone, be believed. With piercing clarity one can see through the fog of manufactured reality to identify that Israel - by using this one particular chemical agent - is indeed actively and purposefully targeting the civilian population in Gaza.

Having received her Master of Arts degree in Legal Theory, Maha
Zimmo concentrated her research on the Zionization of popular news
culture. A regular contributor to rabble, she writes from Ottawa.




Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.