Recently there has been a number of news stories about the Israeli Defense Force’s use of white phosphorus, also known as WP or Willie Pete. White phosphorus is a standard weapon in 20th century armies. Its use as a weapon was commonplace in WWII and many other conflicts.
Beyond the technical details, white phosphorus is a a waxy substance that burns brightly and produces a large amount of smoke when lit. White phosphorus has two main military uses. First, it is often employed as a means of producing smoke to cover military maneuvers from observation or to mark a location. Second, white phosphorus is used as an incendiary weapon against enemy forces. More specifically, if a canister of white phosphorus is ignited in the air over a target, the area underneath will be showered by small waxy and burning particles. Those pieces can stick to clothes and skin, causing external chemical burns. White phosphorus will burn until it disappears or is deprived of oxygen and thus often causes horrific damage to exposed flesh, sometimes burning down to the bone. Furthermore, individuals can inhale the particles, causing internal burns. Both of these uses are legal under international laws of war.
The controversy around white phosphorus lies in the risk to civilians. The purposeful use of white phosphorus against civilian populations is a clear violation of international law. However, in many urban battlefields where white phosphorus has been used, such as Gaza 2009, Falluja 2004, and Grozy 1994, enemy fighters and civilian populations occupy the same area, often the same building. White phosphorus is not a precision weapon. A white phosphorus attack against Hamas fighters next to a civilian home will in all likelihood shower both with incandescent particles of phosphorus. Furthermore, the toxic smoke (which itself causes skin irritation) might either kill the civilians by suffocation or drive them out into the open where they risk being mistaken for enemy combatants.
Update Via Danger Room: “In Gaza, even the Red Cross accepts that the intention is probably to use WP to create smoke rather than to deliberately injure; the Associated Press quotes the ICRC’s Peter Herby as saying: “It’s not very unusual to use phosphorus to create smoke or illuminate a target. We have no evidence to suggest it’s being used in any other way.”
Update 2: CNN is reporting that the central UN humanitarian storehouse in Gaza is on fire and that “the source of the fires as white phosphorous shells…”
Here are two good resources on White Phosphorus:
- Israel Accused of ‘War Crimes’ for Phosphorus Shells
- White Phosphorus (WP) introduction by Global Security
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.