Israel has claimed that it is taking all precautions to minimize civilian loss of life and casualties. This is bullshit.
One example of this is the use of White Phosphorus rounds in a way where the phosphorus does not burn off before it hits the ground. Phosphorus burns more or less on contact with air, and keeps burning until deprived of oxygen. People who suffer phosphorus burns not only have terrible burns, but they absorb the phosphorus through the skin, and suffer acute phosphorus poisoning. This used to be more common than it is, because phosphorus was used in friction matches and in industrial processes, it was sold for rat poison. During World War II, it was dropped on London as part of “the blitz.” In the 1940’s it was called by one journal article a menace to public health after noting that 50% of the people admitted for phosphorous poisoning died, as compared to 6% of all other non-alcohol poisonings.
So while using phosphorus rounds itself isn’t against the relevant treaties, using it in a way that takes advantage of its toxic qualities makes it a chemical weapon, and it is completely inconsistent with any claim to be cautious or worrying about civilian loss of life to use it in a populated area, and allowing it to fall to the ground.
The problem with worrying about treaties here, for example the CWC is that Israel isn’t a signatory to them. Instead the problem is that Israel has tried to present this as a humane war, a necessary war, and a limited war, with full concern for civilians. This is nonsense.
Phosphorus burns at 30C in humid air, that is, it spontaneously burns on a warm day, and keeps burning until it runs out of oxygen. Phosphorus burns even as it clings to the body, and even as it enters it. According to global security, up to 15% of the White Phosphorous – actually a slightly yellow waxy like substance – remains and can be reignited by impact or crushing.
When used for creating smoke WP is mixed with other materials, and burns almost completely within moments, this produces a deep white milky fog. When used as an incendiary weapon – that is, to cause burns – it is detonated to produce burning shrapnel that sticks to the skin. It is effective both against materials like oil, and against people. The US denied it’s use as an anti-personnel weapon in Iraq, but in 2005 admitted that they had engaged in “shake and bake” operations where white phosphorus rounds were used to drive out insurgents who were then hit with high explosive rounds. This was done during both the invasion in 2003 and in the occupation. Saddam routinely used WP rounds in attacks against civilians.
Phosphorus burns are well known to cause deep and painful 2nd and 3rd degree burns. More over, phosphorus, while in very small amounts is used by the body, in larger doses rapidly causes acute poisoning, with no approved treatment. Phosphorus clings to mucous lined tissues, accumulates in the liver and kidneys, and causes death by organ failure. People vomit and suffer intense headaches and pain. The signature symptom is the “garlicky” smell of the burns, and a similar taste on the victim’s mouth.
Half of all deaths occur in the first day because of cardiac arrest, in the majority of other cases death from renal failure or liver failaure comes in 4 to 8 days according to Heikki Nikkanen and Michel Burns Ewald in the most recent edition of Goldfrank’s Toxicological Emergencies. One early bad sign is a rise in amniotrasferases enzymes, similar to the appearance of jaundice and other liver diseases.
The LD50 – that is the dose that will on average kill 50% of those exposed to it – is considered to be 1mg per kg of body weight. OSHA sets the acceptable exposure limit to it as .1 mg per m^3.
There is no accepted course of treatment, though JIST reports one case of using N-acetylcysteine.
This means that allowing exposure to WP for civilians, or as unexpended rounds in a conflict, is completely incompatible with any claim to be limiting civilian casualties. WP as a weapon causes burns and poisoning, leaves behind unexpended, but still spontaneously combustible phosphorus, it causes damage both to cells and to organ function. It has, to repeat an important point, no approved course of treatment.
Thus, while Israel isn’t breaking any treaties – because it hasn’t signed them – it clearly flouts the spirit and intention of conventions to ban the use of poisoning as a tool of war, and in causing excessive civilian casualties.
Israel banked a large moral surplus because of the long history of anti-semitism and genocide against Jews in European and global history. It spent some more of that today, and in more and more eyes, is passing into moral deficit.
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