HRW, anti-Israel Campaigns, and White Phosphorous: Condemn First, Correct (Maybe) Later
On January 10, HRW launched a public relations campaign condemning Israel for allegedly using white phosphorus weapons unlawfully in the conflict with Hamas. The organization issued a news release, “Israel: Stop Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” and a “Q&A on Israel’s Use of White Phosphorous in Gaza.” HRW’s large budget, and its media access via the “halo effect” results in the amplification of these reports in the press and through other NGOs, without independent investigation or verification. HRW’s disproportionate focus on this issue diverts attention from the far more significant aspects of the conflict such as Hamas’ systematic and illegal use of human shields, indiscriminate rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians, and Iran’s role in fomenting the crisis.
White phosphorous is a conventional weapon and “is not outlawed or banned by any convention.” It is often used for illumination of wide areas and to create smoke in order to conceal troop movements and positions. IDF officials have denied using white phosphorous anti-personnel weapons in Gaza.1
Problematic Aspects of Accusations
1) The number of HRW statements, their focus, and type of language used is far more intense than the organization’s calls on Hamas to stop its use of human shields and of indiscriminate rocket attacks aimed at Israeli civilians — both war crimes under international humanitarian law.
2) HRW’s claims, as examined below, are inconsistent and not subject to verification, following a pattern of political and ideological attacks in the 2006 Lebanon war (including false claims disseminated by HRW in the Qana incident), and in other examples, as documented by NGO Monitor (see examples at the end of this report).
3) HRW’s “evidence” is based upon innuendo and “eyewitness” reports. One report states that “[o]n January 9, Human Rights Watch researchers on a ridge overlooking Gaza from the northwest observed multiple air-bursts of artillery-fired WP that appeared to be over the Gaza City/Jabaliya area. In addition, Human Rights Watch has analyzed photographs taken by the media on the Israel-Gaza border.” HRW does not name its researchers; it does not provide the exact location of its observation; nor does it identify the photos it “analyzed” making independent verification of this “evidence” impossible.
4) The use of flares to assist search and rescue forces and for similar purposes saves lives of injured soldiers and prevents Hamas from kidnapping the bodies of dead soldiers, as has happened in the past, and are legal under all international weapons conventions. If indeed such use occurred, to claim that such operations are somehow illegal or immoral is, in itself, immoral.
5) These HRW claims have been copied in the media (the Guardian, the Times (UK), Ha’aretz, CNN2) and by other NGOs. On January 11, the day after HRW issued its reports, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights began issuing allegations of widespread Palestinian casualties and “burns” caused by white phosphorous “bombs”. B’Tselem also repeated the charge that Israel was using white phosphorous “illegally” without providing any source for its claim.
Human Rights Watch, News Release: “Israel: Stop Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” January 10, 2009
- White phosphorous can burn down houses and cause horrific burns when it touches the skin,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. “Israel should not use it in Gaza’s densely populated areas.”
- “Since the beginning of Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza on January 3, 2009, there have been numerous media reports about the possible use of white phosphorous by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF told both Human Rights Watch and news reporters that it is not using white phosphorus in Gaza. On January 7, an IDF spokesman told CNN, ‘I can tell you with certainty that white phosphorus is absolutely not being used.'”
Article (Ha’aretz): “Human Rights Watch: IDF phosphorous bombs in Gaza violate int’l law,” January 13, 2009
- U.S. rights group Human Rights Watch this week charged Israel with illegal use of white phosphorous bombs in urban areas.”
Article (Jerusalem Post): “IDF: We’re not using illegal weapons,” January 12, 2009
- “Human Rights Watch earlier accused the army of firing artillery shells packed with white phosphorus, an incendiary agent, over populated areas, including a crowded refugee camp, and putting civilians at risk.”
Article International Middle East Media Center: “Human Rights Watch: ‘Israel is using white-phosphorus against Gaza’,”January 10, 2009
- “Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that the Israeli Army is using White Phosphorus in its artillery shells against the Gaza Strip. Researchers of HRW said that they observed on January 9th and January 10th, several artillery shells fired by the Israelis near Gaza and Jabalia, and that these shells apparently included white-phosphorus.”
- “Using this type of shells, in this manner, is banned by international humanitarian law, the group added.”
Live Chat with Donatella Rivera: “Ask Amnesty,” January 12, 2009
- “There is evidence that white phosphorous is being used by Israeli force in Gaza, posing an additional risk to the civilian population. We have not yet been able to confirm use of DIME.”
Press Release: “Israel is using phosphorous illegally in Gaza Strip bombings,” January 12, 2009
- “Information received by B’Tselem and several media reports indicate that the army is using phosphorous in the Gaza Strip. This weapon serves primarily to create screening, enabling forces to advance on the ground without being exposed.”
- “The use of such a weapon in a densely populated civilian area like the Gaza Strip breaches these two principles, and violates Israel’s obligation to take every possible precaution to limit harm to civilians.”
- “B’Tselem demands that the army immediately cease using phosphorous in the Gaza Strip.”
PCHR “Israel Uses Incinerating Bombs Against Civilian Population 16th Day of Continuous IOF Attacks Across the Gaza Strip: 93 Palestinians Killed, Including 10 Children and 6 Women: Current Death Toll stands at 852: IOF Victims Include 203 Children, 58 Women and 165 Civil Police Officers:,” January 11, 2009
- “IOF are also using incinerating bombs against civilians, who are reporting being shelled by flaming objects that explode into potentially lethal shrapnel whilst also releasing suffocating white smoke. During the reporting period, at least one hundred civilians in the Khan Yunis area suffered skin burns, spasms and serious breathing difficulties as a result of having being attacked by these bombs. PCHR is currently investigating the use, and constituents, of these latest IOF lethal weapons.”
- “At approximately 09:00, ten Palestinian civilians, mostly women and children, were admitted into hospitals in Khan Yunis. They were suffering from breathing difficulties, severe pains in their eyes, and their clothes had the smell of burnt phosphorous. According to a number of civilians whose houses have been hit by these artillery shells, the weapons release disgusting, toxic smelling smoke which causes immediate suffocation. A number of people had subsequently fainted. The shells also burnt a number of houses. Ameen Isma’il Subeh, 40, sustained burns to his right hand when one of these shells hit his house.”<
Palestine National Initiave
Press Release: “900 people killed in Gaza and more 4,100 wounded since the beginning of the Israeli operations. Dr. Bargouthi highlights the main Israeli violation to international law,” January 12, 2009
- “The Use of prohibited weapons. Such as the use of Phosphoric bombs, in contravention to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons of 1980, which bans the use of incendiary devices against personnel in densely inhabited civilian areas. The use of weaponized white phosphorous was reported yesterday in the northern border-town of Beit Lahiya, which set hit homes ablaze.”
Previous Examples of False Claims Used in Campaigns Directed at Israel
In the July 30, 2006 Qana incident in the Lebanon War, Lucy Mair of HRW (HRW’s former researcher with a prior history of anti-Israel campaigning) disregarded the Red Cross on-scene estimate of 28 casualties (which proved to be the actual figure) in favor of a higher estimate of 54 provided by an alleged “survivor” [see Kim Murphy, “Warfare in the Middle East: Officials Say 28 Die in Qana not 54,”The Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2006.]. HRW’s false estimate was widely picked up by the media and further disseminated by HRW in an August 1, 2006 press release, sparking an international outcry and leading to a temporary halt to the fighting. As a study published by Harvard University notes, “Most reporters used the higher of the two [casualty] estimates, some describing the scene as a massacre. It made for more sensational copy.” HRW belatedly acknowledged the correct casualty figure, though the damage had already been done.
Marc Garlasco led HRW’s high profile “investigation” into the Gaza Beach incident in 2006, repeating claims that “the evidence overwhelmingly supports the allegations that the civilians were killed by artillery shells fired by the IDF”, and ignoring detailed evidence to the contrary, including shrapnel removed from the victims taken to Israel for treatment. Garlasco was also among the authors of HRW’s “Razing Rafah” report of 2004, which contained many unverifiable and disputed claims, erased the context of terror, and was used to justify HRW involvement in anti-Israel boycott campaigns.
- “Ashkenazi also denied allegations that the army was using white phosphorous against Palestinian gunmen in Gaza: ‘The IDF acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorous,” Ashkenazi told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in response to a query by Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On. (“Barak: We Respect the UN but we are Continuing with Gaza Op, The Jerusalem Post, January 13, 2009).
Ben Wedeman’s CNN report quotes a noted expert — Dr. Peter Grossman, president of the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, California<, who stated that “it is not possible to tell, based on pictures of burns, whether white phosphorus was responsible.” But then Wedeman quotes a number of Palestinians who repeat HRW’s allegations regarding the use of white phosphorous, and whose crediblity cannot be verified.