When white phosphorus lands on skin it burns deeply through muscle and into the bone, continuing to burn until deprived of oxygen.
Amnesty International’s delegates found still-burning white phosphorus wedges all around residential buildings on Sunday. These wedges were further endangering the residents and their property; streets and alleys are full of children playing, drawn to the detritus of war and often unaware of the danger.
The carrier shells which delivered the wedges were also still lying in and around houses and buildings. Some of these heavy steel 155mm shells have caused extensive damage to residential properties.
"Yesterday, we saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army," said Christopher Cobb-Smith, a weapons expert who is in Gaza as part of the four-person Amnesty International team.
"White phosphorus is a weapon intended to provide a smokescreen for troop movements on the battlefield," said Cobb-Smith. "It is highly incendiary, air burst and its spread effect is such that it that should never be used on civilian areas.”
Donatella Rovera, Amnesty’s researcher on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories said that such extensive use of this weapon in Gaza's densely populated residential neighbourhoods is inherently indiscriminate. "Its repeated use in this manner, despite evidence of its indiscriminate effects and its toll on civilians, is a war crime," she said
When each 155mm artillery shell bursts, it deploys 116 wedges impregnated with white phosphorus which ignite on contact with oxygen and can scatter, depending on the height at which it is burst (and wind conditions), over an area at least the size of a football pitch. In addition to the indiscriminate effect of air-bursting such a weapon, firing such shells as artillery exacerbates the likelihood that civilians will be affected.
"Artillery is an area weapon; not good for pinpoint targeting. The fact that these munitions, which are usually used as ground burst, were fired as air bursts increases the likely size of the danger area,” said Chris Cobb-Smith.
Among the places worst affected by the use of white phosphorus was the UNRWA compound in Gaza City, at which Israeli forces fired three white phosphorus shells on 15 January. The white phosphorus landed next to some fuel trucks and caused a large fire which destroyed tons of humanitarian aid.
Prior to this strike, the compound had already been hit an hour earlier and the Israeli authorities had been informed by UNRWA officials and had given assurance that no further strikes would be launched on the compound.
In another incident on the same day a white phosphorus shell landed in the al-Quds hospital in Gaza City also causing a fire that forced hospital staff to evacuate the patients.