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Accessory to murder?

February 24, 2009

The white phosphorus artillery shells discovered by Amnesty International researchers in Gaza were US made. The repeated use of white phosphorus in densely-populated civilian areas is a form of indiscriminate attack that amounts to a war crime. Call for a US government investigation into Israel’s potential misuse of US made weapons in Gaza.

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American soldier packing a White Phosphorous mortar round during heavy weapons training at Rodriquez Range

American soldier packing a white phosphorous mortar round during heavy weapons training at Rodriquez Range. Photo: Curt Eddings / US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons

Following the start of the Israeli military offensive on 27 December, Israeli forces killed more than 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 300 children, and injured over 5,000 other Palestinians. After a ceasefire took effect and the fighting stopped, Amnesty International researchers in Gaza have found evidence of war crimes and other serious violations of international law by both Israel and Hamas. And possibly the US.

According to Amnesty International,  researchers have found fragments and components from munitions used by the Israeli Army  in hospitals and in people’s homes as well as littering streets and playgrounds. Among the munitions found were remnants from Hellfire and other airborne missiles, large F-16 delivered bombs, and the still-smoldering, highly incendiary remnants of white phosphorus artillery shells. Markings on many of these remnants – including one white phosphorus artillery shell used in the Israeli attack of UNRWA’s field operations headquarters in Gaza City – identify them as US made.

When these white phosphorus  artillery shells burst, they deploy more than 100 wedges impregnated with white phosphorus which can scatter over an area at least the size of a football pitch. When white phosphorus lands on skin it burns through muscle and into the bone, continuing to burn until deprived of oxygen. It can also contaminate other parts of the patient’s body or even those treating the injuries.

When white phosphorus munitions are used in densely-populated civilian areas, it violates international humanitarian law’s prohibition on indiscriminate attacks and, according to Amnesty International,  amounts to a war crime.

Murder by proxy

Drawing: US Army / Wikimedia Commons

Drawing: US Army / Wikimedia Commons

Since 2001, the USA has been by far the major supplier of conventional arms to Israel, including government to government as well as private commercial sales. According to Amnesty International, US  authorities continued to authorize large shipments of  munitions, including white phosphorus munitions, to Israel even after the start of the current Gaza conflict and reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) .

Article 16 of the International Law Commission’s Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts states that

“A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State.”

The shelling of Palestininan civilians with white phosphorous would certainly be internationally wrongful if committed by the US. The research carried out by Amnesty International indicates that the US did indeed aid and assist Israel in the commission of this wrongful act. If the US did so without knowledge of the circumstances of this wrongful act, they were probably the last civilized state on earth to gain such knowledge. On the other hand, if the US government did have such knowledge, they may well be guilty of grave violations of international law, making themselves – and the US defense industry – accessories to the murder of hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

Take action

Amnesty International is asking the US State Department to do two things to to start making amends for their implication in possible Israeli war crimes:

  1. Investigate Israel’s use of US weapons to determine if any US weapons were used to harm civilians. Awaiting the outcome of such an investigation, the US should cease all weapons transfer to Israel.
  2. Support a UN Sanctioned arms embargo on all parties to the conflict until effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that weapons or munitions will not be used to commit serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

Urge US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take responsibility and stand up for the victims of US weaponry here!

UPDATE: Do you want to do more for the victims in Gaza and Israel?

Urge UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband to suspend all transfers of military equipment and munitions to Israel, and to work with the international community to impose immediately a comprehensive UN Security Council arms embargo on Israel, Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Åsmund permalink
    February 24, 2009 9:38 pm

    Is this the same kind of weaponry used by the Americans in the attack on Falujah? A coupple of years back i watched a dockumentary by Sigfrido Ranucci, “The Hidden Massacre” or something like that, and the effects of white phosphorus seemed really terrible. I can’t understand why it’s not deemed illegal by the Chemical Weapons Convention, when it is clearly used as a chemical weapon. I know this blog entry is mostly about the fact that it would be illegal by USA to supply any weapons or ammunition to Israel in this conflict, but i hope there are more people than me that would like to ban the use of white phosphorus in any situation.


    • February 25, 2009 9:24 am

      According to Wikipedia, white phosphorous was indeed used in Fallujah.

      The use of white phosphorous against human targets (civilian and military alike) is outlawed by international humanitarian law. According to he US Army Battle Book – Field Manual 100-3, “It is against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets.”

      However, the use of white phosphorous is legal for purposes such as illumination and obscuring smoke, and the Chemical Weapons Convention does, for some reason, not list it in its schedules of chemical weapons.

      You are certainly not the only one who would like to see white phosphorous banned all together. However, I fear that this will not happen any time soon, and that at least aggressive states like Israel and the US will continue to use this horrible weapon. Remember that these countries still make, stockpile and use cluster munitions, a type of weapon that is already outlawed by most civilized countries.


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