Sunday, January 4, 2009

Cluster Bombs and White Phosphorus: Will the Atrocities Never Cease

Among other bits of news coming out of the site of the latest massacre of Palestinians are 1) the Israeli military is using cluster bombs, and 2) that the Israeli military is dropping white phosophorus on Gaza's civilians. Some tidbits:
(Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. The Newshoggers has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this material nor is The Newshoggers endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

The image above is the London Times, as "Israeli artillery shells explode with a chemical agent designed to create smokescreen for ground forces." But last night the same picture was simply captioned as an artillery shell exploding over Gaza and other similiar images at AFP/Getty are similiarly captioned. One wonders why Murdoch's flagship newspaper decided to change the caption.

In two of those AFP/Getty images, here and here, you can clearly see impact explosions and fires begun by those impacts. Those are not chemical smoke shells. An ex-military officer friend tells me that the shells seen exploding in all these pictures are DPICM or Cluster Munition rounds. Identical cluster munitions were used in Lebanon by the IDF during the 2006 conflict and by both the UK and US during the invasion of Iraq. It's likely that the IDF are using US-made M483A1 DPICM artillery-delivered shells.

At the end of May, 111 nations including most NATO allies signed a treaty banning their stockpiling and use. neither the US nor Israel agreed to become signators. Although cluster bombs are not explicitly forbidden by the Geneva Law, the rules of war prohibit the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons or weapons that are incapable of being used in a manner that complies with the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Those who use them in civilian areas therefore open themselves to charges of war crimes.

The impact of such indiscriminate tactics is immediate:
Eric Fosse, a Norwegian doctor there, said Hamas fighters were a small minority of the casualties brought in.

"This hospital has been filled up with patients," he added. This morning they [Israeli forces] bombed the fruit market. There were a large number of casualties.

"We became like a field hospital. There were two patients at a time in the operating rooms and we were operating on other people in the corridors. Some were dying before we could get to them."

Moawya Hasanian, the head of al-Shifa's emergency and ambulance department, said the hospital had taken in 33 dead and 137 wounded by lunchtime on Sunday.
Among those killed was an paramedic after his ambulance was hit by Israeli fire. Three of his colleagues were wounded.

"Only three of the dead are from Hamas, the rest are civilians," Hasanian said. "There are many children under 18. There are many in critical condition. We are working under pressure. It's not easy to work with bombs and air strikes everywhere. It's not easy for ambulances to move."
Which makes Israeli claims of there being no humanitarian crisis in Gaza ludicrous.
John Ging, the head of the UN relief agency in Gaza, described the situation there as "inhuman".

"We have a catastrophe unfolding in Gaza for the civilian population," he said. "The people of Gaza City and the north now have no water. That comes on top of having no electricity. They're trapped, they're traumatised, they're terrorised by this situation.

"They're in their homes. They're not safe. They're being killed and injured in large numbers, and they have no end in sight. The inhumanity of this situation, the lack of action to bring this to an end, is bewildering to them."

The UN has been particularly angered at the contention of the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Ging also accused Israel of a campaign of destroying public buildings vital to the administration and governance of Gaza.

"The whole infrastructure of the future state of Palestine is being destroyed," he said. "Blowing up the parliament building. That's the parliament of Palestine. That's not a Hamas building. The president's compound is for the president of Palestine. Schools, mosques."
"When there was a siege, we kept taking about a catastrophe," said Hatem Shurrab, 24, of Gaza City. "But then the airstrikes started, and now we don't even know what word to use. There's no word in the dictionary that can describe the situation we are in."
Update: I've had another email from a colleague who says that the pictured shell bursts could be White Phosphorus rounds. That too, of course, would be an arguable violation of the Geneva Conventions, given that in the two AFP/Getty pictures linked there are clear explosions on the ground linked to the shellburst's numerous smoke trails.

Update3: Haaretz confirms the IDF's use of cluster bombs but says they're being used over "open areas". Gaza is a lot smaller than Rhode island and cluster bombs have a pattern as big as a football field.

Update 4. The pictures definitely show white phosphorus rounds bursting over built-up civilian areas and causing fires. A nasty weapon in such circumstances.

White phosphorus bombs and shells are incendiary devices, but can also be used as an offensive anti-personnel flame compound capable of causing serious burns or death...White phosphorus weapons are controversial today because of their potential use against civilians. While the Chemical Weapons Convention does not designate WP as a chemical weapon, various unofficial groups consider it to be one. In recent years, the United States, Israel, Russia, and Argentina have used white phosphorus in combat.

...Incandescent particles of WP cast off by a WP weapon's initial explosion can produce extensive, deep (second and third degree), burns. Phosphorus burns carry a greater risk of mortality than other forms of burns due to the absorption of phosphorus into the body through the burned area, resulting in liver, heart and kidney damage, and in some cases multi-organ failure.[23] These weapons are particularly dangerous to exposed people because white phosphorus continues to burn unless deprived of oxygen or until it is completely consumed.
While I think of historical parallels, one that comes immediately to mind is that of the US government's use of such weapons against the civilians of such cities as Fallujah. In fact, I believe it is now time to reprise something I wrote in late 2005:
The use of such weapons as white phosphorus and MK77 against civilians in Fallujah by US forces has recently resurfaced in the news, as we noted a couple days ago. This is something the US military even admits to doing. There is understandably some confusion as to what to call white phosphorous (is it a chemical weapon or is it an incendiary or does it really matter) and also some confusion as to what restrictions exist with regard to international law regarding these weapons. I'd like to set aside all that for a while, and remind the reader of a couple larger issues.
  1. The firebombing of Fallujah killed and maimed an enormous number of people - many of whom were civilians, including many who were kids. A number of us find the comparison to the firebombing of Guernica to be an apt one. It was a human rights catastrophe.
  2. However one might wish to classify white phosphorous, the bottom line is that the stuff melts the skin off of children - and adults for that matter.
I thought Hunter put it sufficiently bluntly:
I think we need to take a step back from the newest Fallujah revelations. There's been a lot of confusion over what is or isn't a "chemical weapon" vs. an "incendiary"; what aspects of the Geneva conventions the United States is or is not signatory to; and whether or not the United States is still bound by rules of warfare that they are not direct signatories to.

Allow me to try to clear things up, if I can.

First, I think it should be a stated goal of United States policy to not melt the skin off of children.

As a natural corollary to this goal, I think the United States should avoid dropping munitions on civilian neighborhoods which, as a side effect, melt the skin off of children. You can call them "chemical weapons" if you must, or far more preferably by the more proper name of "incendiaries". The munitions may or may not precisely melt the skin off of children by setting them on fire; they do melt the skin off of children, however, through robust oxidation of said skin on said children, which is indeed colloquially known as "burning". But let's try to avoid, for now, the debate over the scientific phenomenon of exactly how the skin is melted, burned, or caramelized off of the aforementioned children. I feel quite confident that others have put more thought into the matter of how to melt the skin off of children than I have, and will trust their judgment on the matter.

Now, I know that we may be melting the skin off of children in order to give them freedom, or to prevent Saddam Hussein from possibly melting the skins off of those children at some future date. These are good and noble things to bring children, especially the ones who have not been killed by melting their skin.


And I know it is true, there is some confusion over whether the United States was a signatory to the Do Not Melt The Skin Off Of Children part of the Geneva conventions, and whether or not that means we are permitted to melt the skin off of children, or merely are silent on the whole issue of melting the skin off of children.

But all that aside, there are very good reasons, even in a time of war, not to melt the skin off of children.
  • First, because the insurgency will inevitably be hardened by tales of American forces melting the skin off of children.
  • Second, because the civilian population will harbor considerable resentment towards Americans for melting the skin off of their children.

And, unless Saddam Hussein had a brigade or two consisting of six year olds, we can presume that children, like perhaps nine tenths or more of their immediate families, are civilians.

[...] is certainly true that the whole child-melting decision, pro or con, should be treated with some gravity, and perhaps methods of combat which do not melt the skin off of children should be considered.
Because melting the skin off of children, as it turns out, is a very good way to turn the opinion of the American population against a war in general:

So in conclusion, I am going to come out, to the continuing consternation of Rush Limbaugh and pro-war supporters everywhere, as being anti-children-melting, as a matter of general policy.

The images that came out of Fallujah (see here for example) in the aftermath of last November's raid as was true of the images out of Vietnam were disturbing to say the least. I look at the pictures of the casualties and keep thinking that these were someone's kids, spouses, in-laws, friends, neighbors, etc. I can imagine being horrified if they had been my kids or family. I can only imagine what their survivors must have thought and felt. As luck would have it, I and my loved ones are here and not there.

As a general rule of thumb, I think it's safe to say that any chemical (or incendiary or whatever the hell you wish to call it) that can burn or melt the flesh off of living human beings should not be used on those human beings. Leaders who come to view the use of such weapons against civilians as acceptable, who have come to view the consequences of using such weapons as acceptable, have clearly lost their moral compass. Those who are willing to make excuses for those leaders' decision to melt the skin off of other human beings are no better. In my value system there is no acceptable reason for melting peoples' skin off. Period.
It bears repeating: any chemical that can burn or melt the flesh off of living human beings should not be used on those human beings. It equally bears repeating that leaders of any government who use such weapons or who support those governments who use such weapons have either lost their moral compass or never had a moral compass to begin with. When the Holocaust happened, those who perpetrated it came to be viewed as monsters; although I would not quite go that far (to cut to the chase, I'm just a bit too familiar with research that grew out of Milgram's infamous obedience experiments to easily make internal attributions of antisocial behaviors), it certainly seems noncontroversial to label their actions and their consequences as monstrous. What Israel is doing is monstrous. That our leaders in the US support the Israeli government and continue to provide the funding that enables its government to continue to perpetrate a war of genocide against the Palestinians is monstrous. Period.

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