Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The White Phosphorus Controversy

You may have heard on the news that something called "white phosphorus" has been used by Israel in Gaza (the above picture Human Rights Watch said it was clear Israel had fired shells containing white phosphorus(aljazeera),photo by:Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images, January 2009.). So, what is white phosphorus and should it be used?

According to Wikipedia, "White phosphorus (WP) is a flare- and smoke-producing incendiary device[1] or smoke-screening agent that is made from a common allotrope of the chemical element phosphorus. White phosphorus bombs and shells are incendiary weapons, but can also be used as offensive anti-personnel flame compounds capable of causing serious burns or death.[2] The agent is used in bombs, artillery, and mortars, short-range missiles which burst into burning flakes of phosphorus upon impact...

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 groups consider it to be one. In recent years, the United States, Israel, and Russia have used white phosphorus in combat."

So, where has this been used? The white phosphorus, "Willie Pete", or WP was used in Iraq during combat by the United States. During the cases where WP was used, it was used against insurgents for producing obscuring smoke to get our troops to where they needed to be and used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants and not against civilians. It was used clear back in World War One, so it has been around for a long time.

"Another news report[10] said "US intelligence" called WP a chemical weapon in a declassified Pentagon report from February 1991:

"Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorus chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and the populace in Erbil and Dohuk. The WP chemical was delivered by artillery rounds and helicopter gunships."
but the actual declassified document[11] contains the words "WARNING: (U) THIS IS AN INFORMATION REPORT, NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE."

"The Chemical Weapons Convention does not list WP in its schedules of chemical weapons."

It is currently reported that WP is being used in the Israel-Gaza conflict as a smoke screen or to illuminate their targets. With such a densely populated area, there are bound to be civilian casualties with the use of WP, but The International Red Cross says that there is no evidence to suggest it is being used improperly or illegally.

Since Hamas chooses to hide itself in hospitals, schools, and churches, it is not likely that the WP is actually getting Israel to the major combat locations where they can gather the Hamas militants or leaders. However, it may be something that gets them closer to the positions they need to be in to accurately fight this bloody battle.

Reported in the Tehran Times, "the white phosphorous used by the Israeli army can cause genetic mutations in Gazans." I have not found information that confirms that theory, other than the documentary film Fallujah, The Hidden Massacre that stated regarding the danger of the weapon effects:

"In particular, some women had tried to enter their homes, and they had found a certain dust spread all over the house. The Americans themselves had told them to clean the houses with detergents, because that dust was very dangerous. In fact, they had some effect on their bodies, leading to some very strange things."

There are some cases when you may hear the terms napalm and white phosphorus used simultaneously, however they are not the same thing. They have quite different compositions.

Another interesting part of the Tehran Times article states that WP is "Classified as a 'chemical weapon' by the U.S. intelligence, white phosphorus is a known genotoxic capable of causing genetic mutations and cancer by disrupting the biochemistry of the body." Again, I found nothing to confirm these claims.

When it comes to war, there are many ugly weapons and tactics that are used. War is destructive to building structures, economies, and civilians. With these thoughts in mind, the end of the conflict going on between Israel and Gaza is not likely to end any time soon as that area has had conflict for hundreds of years.

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