Ref: 14/2009

Date: 14 January  2009

Time: 13:00 GMT


PCHR Condemns IOF Use of Unidentified Incinerating

Bombs Against Civilians, Causing Horrific Burns

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) utterly condemns the mass killing of civilians by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) during its ongoing military operation in the Gaza Strip. The current death toll stands at 983, including at least 673 civilians, of whom approximately 225 are children. In addition to the rising civilian death toll, the Centre is also gravely concerned about IOF use of unidentified incinerating bombs that are causing horrific burns to civilians across the Gaza Strip, and forcing doctors to perform amputations on some civilian victims. The Centre is demanding an immediate investigation into IOF use of these weapons by international health experts.  

Hospitals across the Gaza Strip have reported increasing numbers of civilians with serious burns being admitted for emergency treatment, and the scale of injuries indicates that IOF are using these unidentified incinerating bombs to target civilians across the Gaza Strip. For example, on 10 January, 2009, residents of Khuza’a village, east of Khan Yunis, reported being attacked by IOF artillery shells which exploded into flames, dispersing shrapnel and dense white smoke that caused skin burns, suffocation, spasms and fainting. At least one hundred local civilians were injured by this IOF attack, including medical personnel who arrived at the scene. Civilians were subsequently admitted to hospitals in Khan Yunis, suffering from breathing difficulties and severe pains in their eyes.

As part of its ongoing investigation into the constituents, and effects, of these unidentified IOF weapons, PCHR has interviewed Dr Nafez Abu Shaban, Head of the Burns Unit at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza city, the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip.

Dr Abu Shaban told the Centre: “We are now receiving patients with burns that are so extreme, the patients’ tissue and muscles have been destroyed. We have been forced to amputate some patients’ limbs as a result. We have carried out six double leg amputation operations on patients who had suffered critical burns of this nature. Three of the patients died after surgery.”

Dr Abu Shaban also told the Centre that some of the burn victims are suffering serious lacerations, and internal bleeding. “We do not fully understand why some of the injured are bleeding internally, because we can find no X-ray evidence of foreign objects inside their bodies” he said. “Our great concern is that we do not know the full consequences of these injuries. We can only presume the victims, who are all civilians, have been subjected to attack by chemical weapons.”

He also stated that, “Our patients [in the burns unit] ask us what exactly has happened to them, and we do not know what to tell them. I have never seen injuries like this before. We need international health organizations to send us medical specialists immediately who can assist us in responding to injuries from chemical weapons.”  

PCHR is gravely concerned that the IOF may be using white phosphorous against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip as part of its continuing military operation across Gaza. White phosphorus is a flammable chemical typically used in military operations for signalling, screening and incendiary purposes. When exposed to air, it spontaneously ignites and will continue to burn until either all the [white phosphorous] fragments are consumed, or the element itself is deprived of oxygen. White phosphorus can burn right down to the human bone. The chemical composition of this weapon – which causes extreme second and third degree chemical burn injuries – also makes it exceptionally difficult to treat.

The use of white phosphorous in densely populated areas violates customary international law provisions relating to the principle of distinction and the precautions necessary in attack. Customary international law explicitly requires that all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of warfare be taken, in order to avoid or minimize disproportionate injury or loss of life among the civilian population. It also requires that an attacker do everything possible to assess whether an attack may be expected to cause disproportionate loss of life or injury, and defines an indiscriminate attack as one which employs a method or means of combat, the effects of which cannot be limited as required by international humanitarian law. Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and as such constitute war crimes. IOF use of white phosphorus in the current context would violate all of these principles.

PCHR notes that international law not only prohibits specific weapons, but also the manner in which these weapons are used, and the manner in which hostilities are conducted. 

In light of the crimes being committed by IOF against the Palestinian civilian population and civilian objects in the Gaza Strip, PCHR:

1.      Calls for an immediate halt to the IOF offensive against the population of the Gaza Strip.

2.      Calls for an immediate investigation by international health experts into the use of unidentified weapons by the IOF against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.

3.      Calls for an immediate halt to all IOF measures of collective punishment being imposed on the Palestinian civilian population in the Gaza Strip, especially the total siege and closure of the Gaza Strip, and demands immediate safe movement for both persons and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip.

4.      Reiterates that crimes committed by IOF are clear evidence not only for the excessive and disproportionate use of force, but also of acts of retaliation against Palestinian civilians. 

5.      Holds Israel responsible for the lives of Palestinian civilians in all circumstances. Under international law, the existence of armed resistance does not in any case justify the use of such excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate force.

6.      Warns that the lives of Palestinian civilians are  in danger in light of threats vowed by Israeli political and military officials to expand military operations against the population of the Gaza Strip.

7.      Calls upon the international community to immediately intervene to stop such crimes, and calls upon the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention, Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, to fulfil their obligation under article 1 of the Convention to ensure respect for the Convention in all circumstances, as well as their obligation under article 146 to search for and prosecute those who are responsible for perpetrating grave breaches of the Convention, as such breaches constitute war crimes according to article 147 of the Convention and the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I). 

8.      Calls upon international and Israeli human rights organizations to raise their voices against war crimes being committed by IOF against the unarmed Palestinian civilian population of the Gaza Strip.

9.      Calls for the establishment of an independent inquiry commissions to investigate crimes committed by IOF against Palestinian civilians, including IOF use of internationally prohibited weapons. 

10.  Calls for the prosecution of all political and military officials who are found responsible for committing war crimes against Palestinian civilians.