Hass begins by painting a picture eerily familiar to those accustomed (as Hass is) to seeing Israel's bombardment of Palestinian territories.
The earth shaking under your feet, clouds of choking smoke, explosions like a fireworks display, bombs bursting into all-consuming flames that cannot be extinguished with water, mushroom clouds of pinkish-red smoke, suffocating gas, harsh burns on the skin, extraordinary maimed live and dead bodies.
All of this is being caused by the bombs Israel is dropping on the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, according to reports and testimonies from there.This kind of bombardment has been going on for years. Hass has witnessed it and has been writing about it for years. She has spoken to both Palestinian and Israeli authorities, NGO's and human rights groups, not to mention ordinary citizens. But there is something new about the most recent bombardment:
Since the first day of the Israeli aerial attack, people have been giving exact descriptions of the side effects of the bombing, and claiming that Israel is using weapons and ammunition that they have not seen during the past eight years.Enter Mark Galasco, a senior military analyst from Human Rights Watch. Galasco wants to get to the bottom of allegations against Israel. he wants to see for himself. He wants to determine what weapons have been used by Israel, and whether they are illegal. Israel, of course, is cooperating completely, confident that it will be exonerated.
Furthermore, the kinds of grave injuries doctors at hospitals in the Strip have reported are providing yet another explanation for the overwhelming dread inhabitants are experiencing in any case.
The American-born Garlasco has not been permitted to enter Gaza - as is also the case with people from other human rights organizations and foreign journalists. Therefore, he says, since he is unable to examine actual remnants of the explosives and see the wreckage with his own eyes, he can only guess or make assumptions in some cases. But even from afar, he has no doubt: Israel is using white phosphorus bombs. That was immediately clear to him while he stood last week on a hill facing the Gaza Strip and observed the Israel Defense Forces' bombings for several hours.So is there anything wrong with using white phosphorus in battle? What are the effects of white phosphorus on civilians? And where did Israel get this stuff from?
The use of white phosphorus is permitted on the battlefield, explains Garlasco, but the side effects on humans and the environment are severe and highly dangerous. The statement notes that the "potential for harm to civilians is magnified by Gaza's high population density, among the highest in the world."But in case you thought HAMAS was innocent and spotless in all this, think again. HAMAS doesn't seem to care much for civilians either. It also has some very strange views on international law.
The fireworks-like explosions, the thick smoke, suffocating gas, and flames that are not extinguished by water, but rather are heightened by it - all of these are characteristic of the white phosphorus bombs the IDF is using. Garlasco believes the decision to make such extensive use of these bombs, manufactured by America's General Dynamics Corporation, stems from conclusions drawn from the Second Lebanon War, in which the IDF lost many tanks.
"The phosphorus bombs create a thick smokescreen and if Hamas has an anti-tank rocket, the smoke prevents the rocket from tracking the tank," he explains. There are two ways to use the bombs: The first is to impact them on the ground, in which case the resulting thick smokescreen covers a limited area; the second way is an airburst of a bomb, which contains 116 wafers doused in phosphorus. The moment the bomb blows up and the phosphorus comes in contact with oxygen - it ignites. This is what creates the "fireworks" and billows of jellyfish-shaped smoke. The fallout covers a wide area and the danger of fires and harm to civilians is enormous. The phosphorus burns glass, and immediately ignites paper, trees, wood - anything that is dry. The burning wafers causes terrible injury to anyone who comes in contact with them. The irony is that tear gas is included in the Chemical Weapons Convention and is subject to all kinds of restrictions, whereas phosphorus is not.
And in the meantime, in the hospitals in Gaza there are people lying in beds - among them many children - whose severe injuries and burns have appalled the medical teams.
Garlasco and Human Rights Watch also examine the other side, and he says, "We believe that the Grad and Qassam are illegal weapons because they are not accurate enough to be used in this situation." He adds that Hamas makes frequent use of land mines and explosive charges that are liable to injure civilians.There are always two signs to every coin. Or as they say in Arabic and Hebrew (and Urdu and Hindi as well), you can't clap with one hand.
However, because he and his fellow experts can't go into Gaza, "We don't know what the extent of any [Palestinian] civilian casualties is because of Hamas - whether they are shooting soldiers and their bullets end up killing civilians, or whether their anti-tank missiles miss an Israeli tank and hit a house. We don't know."
In 2005, Garlasco met with a political representative of Hamas and told him that use of Grads is a contravention of the Geneva Convention. The reply he got from the Hamas man was: "'All Israelis are military.' And I explained to them that their reading of international law is wrong." It is amazing, he adds, that the Palestinians can manufacture the Qassams under the conditions in Gaza. The Grad, however, "is a real military weapon, three meters long. It has a significant warhead. The problem is that it is designed to be fired in mass, to be fired 21 rockets at a time, so that you are covering an area and you are having a shock effect. You don't only have an explosion, but also a shock and it covers a big area. Shooting one at a time is almost useless from a military perspective."
Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf
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