9 April 2009 Edition
International : A frontline report from Palestine's Gaza Strip
White Phosphorous bombs – a legacy of suffering
BY YOUSEF AL-HELOU IN GAZA CITY
DURING Israel’s three-week long offensive on Gaza launched on 27 December, the Israeli Army used internationally-banned weapons according to foreign military and medical experts. American-made white phosphorus shells were used in populated areas across the Gaza Strip, home to about 1.5 million people.
Dr Nafez Abu Shaban, head of the Burns Unit at Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical centre, has treated dozens of patients who suffered severe burns. He is keeping a piece of phosphorus covered under sand in a jar to prevent it from being exposed to oxygen.
“Of course, at the beginning of the war, we thought they were normal burns,” Dr Shaban says, “but then patients came back to the hospital suffering from severe pain, and some patients even died. Patients who suffer from 15 per cent surface burns should not die, so we started to ask why.
“Some of the doctors who came to Gaza to help us seemed to have experienced these burns as a result of the use of white phosphorous bombs.”
More than three months have passed since Israel ended its war but it has left legacies of suffering and sad memories. Life has returned to normality for many people but Sabah Abu Halima, who was burnt from head to toe and lost her husband and four children, is still in pain. She has weekly physiotherapy sessions at Shifa Hospital.
We visited her at her house in the northern Gaza Strip town of Seyafa, about 1km from the Strip’s northern border with Israel.
She showed us around her house which was burned as a result of white phosphorous shell that fell on her family’s 16 members through the roof
“We had a happy home,” she tells us. “I lived in this house in security with my husband and children. I was the happiest person in the world but all of that changed when, on 4 January, the Israeli Army entered our village and fired two phosphorous shells that penetrated our roof and burnt us while we were having our lunch. The fire was like lava. My family were burnt and their bodies turned to crisps.”
Phosphorous shells penetrated our roof and burnt us while we were having our lunch. The fire was like lava. My family were burnt and their bodies turned to crisps
– Mother Sabah Abu Halima, who lost her husband and four children in an Israeli attack
The mournful mother, who is still unable to walk or talk properly, said the house was completely engulfed in flames but she found a photo of her youngest daughter, Shahad, who was only 15 months old. I asked her to comment on the writing which was left on the wall of her bedroom that reads: “From the Israeli Defence Force, we are sorry!” She says:
“I demand the whole world and international human rights organisations to sue the killers of my family. They killed so many innocent people who tried to rescue us.
“What was the guilt of my children and my baby Shahad? Their sorry will not bring back my family. I’m still physiologically and mentally in pain. I can’t even pick up a cup of tea now. My life will never be the same.” She has tears in her eyes.
Some Israeli soldiers have admitted they killed civilians under the so-called rules of engagement. Acts of vandalism, violating medical ethics, using civilians as human shields and indiscriminate killing was obvious through the use of lethal force.
The use of internationally-banned weapons by Israeli forces will leave many with long-term illnesses and it is believed that the area will remain contaminated, putting locals at risk of contracting sickness.
Dr Shaban wants the international community to put pressure on Israel to tell the truth.
“We need to know to know if uranium was used. Were others banned weapons used? We need to know the long-term implications. Will these weapons cause cancer?
“It’s the duty of the international community to investigate this matter. Now we hear many people are still afraid to eat vegetables planted in areas where phosphorous was used because it might be contaminated with radiation.”
The war has changed the lives of many people like Sabah and left a story in every house in besieged Gaza. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, including 313 children. About 5,500 were injured.
Sabah’s tragedy is one of many documented by many international lawyers and fact-finding missions but whether those behind these crimes will be brought to justice remains to be seen.
• Yousef Al-Helou is a freelance journalist based in Gaza. You can reach him on [email protected]