White phosphorus: “The patient came back smoking”

White phosphorus fired by Israel falls on Gaza City. (Eva Bartlett)

17 January 2009

It’s hard to believe it can get worse, but daily it does.

Last week, I saw the white phosphorus clouds doctors have written about and condemned. From a tall Gaza City building, the panoramic view showed a spreading stream of poison, on eastern Gaza.

The chemical burns deeply, to the bone, experts say. It is considered illegal warfare, not to be used in civilian areas. Yet the accounts grow of its use: heavy use in the Khosar region, east of Khan Younis, and in the northwest of Gaza, and in eastern Jabaliya, Sheik Zayid, Sheik Rajleen, al-Zaitoun, everywhere. The United Nations headquarters housing hundreds of fleeing Palestinians which was bombed on 15 January was hit with white phosphorus.

“Five days ago, in Jabaliya, I saw an abnormal material: white dust, spread out in spinning circles which spread the dust further. From inside there was something falling down which looked like snow. It covered a large area, over many houses,” Maher al-Madhouan, head of the physiotherapy department in Sheik Radwan hospital, told me last week.

At al-Shifa hospital, Dr. Nafez Abu Shabaan, Head of the burn department, told me they’ve received some burn cases unlike anything they’ve ever seen. “We’re not familiar with phosphorous burns, but some patients have very deep burns, very strange burns.” He cites the case of a patient sent for a brain scan who three hours later, still alive, “came back smoking.”

In one room, Lada, 20, lies staring blankly, half of her pretty face and soft skin mottled with burns and blisters. Her right hand is bandaged, so the extent of the burn has to be judged by her unbandaged left hand, which has burn gashes and bloated fingers. A medical report charts her burns: right side of face and head; right arm, hand, side, abdomen, leg, and foot. Apparently the incendiary chemical struck from her right. Forty-three percent of her total body surface is covered by these deep burns. She comes from Siatta, north of the northwestern Attatra area, where a tank invasion now rages, well into its first week.

At 4pm on 4 January, Lada and her family were inside their house when it was shelled four times by Israeli tanks. The shell which landed inside her home hit the area closest to Lada. At the time, she was sitting with Mara, her three-year-old daughter, who survived the blast with equally disfiguring and painful burns. A swirl of angry red burn beards Mara’s face, dots her nose, ears and forehead, and cuts into 22 percent of her tiny body’s surface area.

Ali, 4, Yusuf, 17, and their mother (name and age not given) also all suffered facial and bodily burns from the shelling and the chemicals.

“The whole house was filled with fire and black smoke, different than normal smoke from a fire. It was hard to breathe and swelled our throats,” a brother, uninjured, recounted.

The shells which seared the skin of four members of the family killed a further five, including Lada’s father, 44, three younger brothers, 10, 11 and 13, and a baby sister, one and a half, who the mother was holding at the time.

Ambulances were called, and were prevented from arriving. Surviving family members loaded onto a tractor, driven by one of Lada’s cousins. He and another cousin, both 18, were targeted by Israeli soldiers, said the mother, shot dead. The remaining family members had no option but to walk half an hour before they were able to get transportation to a hospital for treatment for their many serious injuries.

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in the Gaza Strip after having arrived with the third Free Gaza Movement boat in November. She has been working with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza, accompanying ambulances while witnessing and documenting the ongoing Israeli air strikes and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

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