Gaza phosphorus casualties relive Israel’s three-week war
Special Report: By Tim Butcher in Gaza City argues why the true story about Israel’s use of phosphorus shells may never emerge.
January 23 2009
John Stuart Mill described war as an ugly thing and it does not come much uglier than the digital photograph Mahmoud Abu Halima has on his mobile phone. It was taken this week and shows the body of his 15-month-old sister, Shahed, burned by white phosphorus, bloated through decomposition and without any feet or legs.
Mr Halima explained what happened to the lower limbs.
“There were about 12 bodies from the village that had to be left out in the open when the Israeli soldiers came. By the time we got back she had been partially eaten by wild dogs,” he said.
After Israel ended its ban on foreign journalists in Gaza it was a week of piecing together such stories, trying to clarify exactly what happened during the three-week military assault by Israel’s armed forces.
The Israeli government has accused people like the Halima family of being coached by Hamas to spout fiction.
Investigation of the Halima family began in the burns unit at Shifa, the largest hospital in Gaza. During its military operations Israel had denied using white phosphorus shells improperly, meaning it was not used against civilians or in civilian areas. But the case of Sabbah Abu Halima, 45, suggested otherwise.
She had been brought into the hospital with what appeared to be mild burns to her right forearm, left lower leg and feet. Without experience of white phosphorus, the staff, led by the unit’s director, Nafiz Abu Shabaan, wiped the wounds, bound them and sent her on her way. “But two days later she came back, complaining of pain and when we opened the bandages we found her wounds still smoking and much, much bigger. Her arm was down to the bone and tendons, that is all that is left,” he said.
Sitting on her hospital bed and wincing with pain when her bandages pinched, Mrs Halima gave an initial account of what happened. She described how her family had gathered to eat in a first-storey room at the family home in the village of Atatra. It lies on the northern edge of Gaza and while it was never likely to be a target during the air assault phase of Israel’s operation Cast Lead, its proximity to the fence with Israel meant it was in the front line for the ground offensive.
“The first shells landed outside and we all stood up and went into the hall and a bedroom because we thought it was safe. That was when a shell came through the roof and exploded. My husband, Saadallah, was holding some of the children but his head was cut off. There was fire and smoke everywhere and the baby Shahed fell to the ground. I heard her cry ‘mama, mama, mama’, and then she stopped,” Mrs Halima said. The house should be a 20-minute drive from Shifa but the conflict has turned roads into slow obstacle courses with cars having to slalom round craters, heaps of rubble and bloated carcasses of livestock. The Halima house lies just off a main road in Atatra up a muddy alley leading to fields of hothouses.
Outside the house lay evidence of the shelling Mrs Halima described. Two white phosphorus shell cases, originally painted light green but burnt by detonations with the metal bent back like tulip petals, were on the ground.
One still had the four tell-tale angle-irons inside to indicate a 155mm white phosphorus shell and was packed with unburned chemical. A poke with a stick to expose the chemical to oxygen was enough to set it burning again, sending out white smoke.
Mr Halima, 20, was next door in the house of his uncle, Hikmat, 42, when the barrage struck and he remembered the smell of the smoke as he rushed up the open stairwell at his home.
“It was a bad smell, a smell that made you choke,” he said. “I came upstairs but there was smoke everywhere. I ran to get water from the bathroom but when I put the water on them the water did not stop the fire.”
White phosphorus fires are resistant to water.
As well as his infant sister and father, Mr Halima lost two brothers – Zaid, 10, and Hamza, eight – in the blast and subsequent fire.
Mr Halima explained how the killing did not end there. As the wounded, including his mother, were dragged down the stairwell, his cousin, Mohammed, 16, the son of Hikmat, ran to the fields to fetch a tractor and trailer to take the injured to safety. According to witnesses, Mohammed was shot dead by Israeli soldiers.
The Atatra case is one of many in Gaza for which human rights activists have demanded an investigation. Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has suggested that there is at least one case with “the appearance of war crimes”. But Israel does not have a good record of co-operating with those investigating atrocities in Gaza. In 2006 after Israeli artillery killed 18 members of the Athamneh family in Gaza, Israel cleared itself of wrongdoing in an internal inquiry and blocked Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and Nobel peace prize laureate, from reaching Gaza to investigate the incident for the UN.
This time round, after denying any improper use of white phosphorus, Israel has launched an internal inquiry. In some ways full-scale investigations of alleged atrocities by the Israeli army are academic.
With the two sides in the conflict so far apart, Israeli hard-liners will not shift from their faith in the probity of its armed forces, nor will Palestinians budge from the view that their people were innocent victims. But unless they are dealt with, the cycle of enmity that has fueled this conflict for decades will continue and the loss of life – 13 Israelis and over 1,300 Palestinians – will have been for nothing.
When Israel launched its attack its stated aim was to reduce Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. At one level the mission has been successful: the militants’ rockets have all but stopped. But before the Israeli government unfurls a Mission Accomplished banner there remains one important point of business: the smuggling tunnels are open again.
Much of the tunneling under the Egyptian border is surprisingly visible, taking place out in the open in the south Gazan town of Rafah clearly within sight of nearby Egyptian watchtowers. The area was pitted with craters from Israeli air strikes but during a visit I saw several of the tunnels open or being repaired.
Further north in the town of Beit Hanoun was the house of Angham al Masri, a 10-year-old girl who was killed in an Israeli air strike after it began its ceasefire in the early hours last Sunday. Her father, Rafat, 44, explained how his daughter thought the ceasefire made it safe to venture out of the house for the first time in days to check on the family farm that had been evacuated during the fighting. “She had only gone a few hundred metres when the missile struck,” he said. “I ran to her and picked her up but she died in an hour.” Israel said it attacked a rocket firing position.
Amid claim and counter-claim about Israel’s war aims and achievements, Mr Masri then indicated how operation Cast Lead has done nothing but harden Palestinian resolve against Israel.
“Israel said this was a war on Hamas but when they kill people like my daughter it becomes clear it is a war on the Palestinian people,” he said. “Until they change this war will never end.”
Israeli’s have committed many crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity, they have also broken International Laws.
Those responsible, should be prosecuted. They should be charged with all crimes they have committed past and present.