Israel must disclose weapons used in Gaza

The Israeli authorities are being urged to disclose the weapons and munitions their forces used during the three week military campaign in Gaza which began on 27 December 2008.

Amnesty International called for the disclosure in order that medical staff can be better equipped to treat victims of the conflict, which ended with a ceasefire declared by Israel on 18 January.

Israel’s earlier failure to disclose, and then refusal to confirm, that its troops had used white phosphorus meant that doctors were unable to provide the correct treatment to people suffering from burns caused by this weapon.

“We now know that white phosphorus munitions were used in built-up civilian areas, although the Israeli authorities previously denied this,” said Donatella Rovera, head of Amnesty International’s investigation team in Gaza. “Now we have irrefutable evidence of the use of this weapon, but the doctors who treated the first casualties did not know what had caused their injuries.”

Some 1,300 Palestinians were killed during the campaign. The dead included more than 400 children and over 100 women. More than 5,300 Palestinians were injured; many will be disabled for the rest of their lives.

“Israeli officials have repeatedly said that its military operation was against Hamas, not against the people of Gaza. There can be no excuse for continuing to withhold information vital to effective treatment of people wounded in Israeli attacks. Lack of cooperation by Israel is leading to needless deaths and unnecessary suffering,” said Donatella Rovera.

“The Israeli authorities should fulfil their obligation to ensure prompt and adequate care for the wounded by making a full disclosure of the weapons and munitions they used in Gaza and provide any other relevant information that may help medical teams.”

Other victims of the conflict have wounds which doctors say they are finding hard to treat because of uncertainty about the nature of the munitions which caused them. Some victims of Israeli air strikes were brought in with charred and sharply severed limbs. It is not known what weapons caused those injuries.

“More lives must not be lost because doctors do not know what caused their patients’ injuries and what medical complications may occur,” said Donatella Rovera, “They have to be fully informed so that they can provide life-saving care.”

White phosphorus particles embedded in the flesh can continue to burn, causing intense pain as the burns grow wider and deeper, and can result in irreparable damage to internal organs. It can contaminate other parts of the patient’s body or even those treating the injuries.

The condition of people with burns caused by white phosphorus can deteriorate rapidly. Even those with burns that cover a relatively small area of the body – 10 to 15 per cent – who would normally survive, can deteriorate and die.

“We noticed burns different from anything we had ever dealt with before,” one burns specialist at Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital told Amnesty International. “After some hours the burns became wider and deeper, gave off an offensive odour and then they began to smoke.”

Only after a number of foreign doctors arrived in the Gaza Strip, days after they had seen the first casualties of white phosphorus, did local doctors learn what had caused the wounds and how to treat them.

A 16-year-old girl, Samia Salman Al-Manay’a, was asleep in her home in the Jabalia refugee camp, north of Gaza City, when a phosphorus shell landed on the first floor of the house at 8pm on 10 January.

Ten days later, from her hospital bed, she told Amnesty International that she was still experiencing intense pain due to the burns to her face and legs. “The pain is piercing. It’s as though a fire is burning in my body. It’s too much for me to bear. In spite of all the medicine they are giving me the pain is still so strong.”