White phosphorus not forgotten in Gaza

Sabah Abu Halima holds a picture of her 15-month-old daughter, Shahad, who was killed by white phosphorus bombs during Israel’s assault on Gaza. (Yousef Al-Helou)

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. Israel used American-made white phosphorus shells in populated areas across the Gaza Strip.

Nafez Abu Shaban, head of the Burn department at Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest medical center, has treated dozens of patients who suffered sever burns. He still keeps a piece of phosphorus covered under sand in jar to prevent it from being exposed to oxygen.

Dr. Abu Shaban described the effects of white phosphorous, explaining that “At the beginning of the war, we thought it was normal burns, but then patients came back to the hospital suffering from severe pain, and even some patients died. Patients who suffer from 15 percent surface burns area should not die — so we started to ask why? Some of the doctors who came to Gaza to help us seemed to have experience said these burns as a result of the use of white phosphorus bombs.”

He added that “We need to know if uranium used, were others banned weapons used? We need to know what the long-term complications will be? 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 vegetable planted in areas phosphorus was used because it might be contaminated with radiation.”

Nearly three months have passed since Israel ended its war and while life has returned to normal for some for many others has left legacies of suffering and sad memories. Sabah Abu Halima who was burnt from head to toe and lost her husband and four children is still in pain and has weekly physiotherapy sessions at Shifa hospital. We visited her at her home in the northern Gaza Strip town of Seyafa about one km from the northern border with Israel. Sabah showed us around her house, which was also burnt as a result of white phosphorus shells that struck the roof of her family’s 16 member home.

She explained that “We had a happy home, 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 phosphorus shells [that] penetrated our roof and burnt us while we were having our lunch. The fire was like lava, my family was burnt and their bodies turned to crisps.”

The mournful mother who is still unable to walk or talk properly, lost her house when it was completely engulfed in flames from the bombs. Luckily she found a photo of her youngest daughter, Shahad, who was only 15 months old when she was killed. I asked her to comment on this writing, which was left on the wall of her bedroom: “From the Israeli Defense Forces, we are sorry!” She answered that “I demand the whole world and international human rights organizations 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,” Sabah answered with tears in her eyes.

Recently some Israeli soldiers admitted they killed civilians under the so-called rules of engagement. Acts of vandalism, targeting medical personnel, use of human shields and indiscriminate killing of civilians were the most obvious and wide-scale violations of international law committed by Israeli forces during the invasion. The use of internationally banned weapons by Israel will leave many with long-term illnesses and it’s believed that some areas will remain contaminated putting locals at risk of contracting sickness.

For a tiny territory of roughly 1.5 million people, the war changed the lives of many. With more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, most of whom were civilians including more than 300 children, and about 5,500 injured, Sabah’s tragedy is just one of many documented by international lawyers and fact-finding missions to Gaza. Whether those behind these crimes will be brought to justice remains to be seen.

Yousef Al-Helou is a freelance journalist based in the Gaza Strip. He can be reached at ydamadan AT hotmail DOT com.

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