As the months pass since the ‘official’ ending of Isral’s massacre in Gaza, more and more official documentation, proof, and analysis of Israeli war crimes and acts of war comes out. Human Rights Watch has produced a 71 page report on the use of white phosphorus on civilians in Gaza, complete with images and maps of attacks. There are links to the report, images and maps – which we’ve also included in our resources pages – below, but I’ve been wondering if the lesson to be learned from this report isn’t about white phosphorus at all, but about the effect of media control.
It has been a very long time since the attacks in Gaza have made it on the news, at least where I am located. They certainly no longer make it in the front pages and the top news stories. The media would pay attention while the massacre was taking place late December and early January, but after the ‘official end of hostilities’, they’ve moved on. Perhaps this is hardly surprising, and not something that we can be realistic when complaining about. After all, the world is a large place, and there are more events taking place apart from the massacre in Gaza, even if rarely quite so tragic. But we cannot expect focus to stay one issue indefinitely, especially in a world as fast moving as our own. So we must make sure the world is aware of the facts while they are occuring, before people’s attention moves elsewhere.
And this is where the effectiveness of Israel’s control of the press during the massacres becomes clear. Because how many people will really find out about this report from Human Rights Watch, or any of the other reports that have been released or will be released by human rights groups, or any of the documentation that will arise of the war crimes and attrocities commited by the IDF? The few of us with a special interest, yes, but we are already aware of the reality of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. But the general public? The general impression they will be left with will be the one they got by what the media reported while the attacks were taking place – while the very same media was held hostage outside Gaza, away from the reality of the ground. And while Israel may not have suceeded in hiding its attrocities quite so well, even during that period, they’ve certainly managed to make them less well-documented, and that will leave some people with the impression of yet another conflict where ‘there’s allegation of inconclusive attrocities’, where ‘the IDF is doing its best to avoid unnecesary death’, where ‘Hamas started the conflict, and Israel is merely responding in the same way any other state would’ etc.
And a few choice quotes from the introduction to the report:
…the report concludes that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) repeatedly exploded white phosphorus munitions in the air
over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians, and damaging civilian structures,
including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a hospital.
White phosphorus munitions did not kill the most civilians in Gaza – many more died from
missiles, bombs, heavy artillery, tank shells, and small arms fire – but their use in densely
populated neighborhoods, including downtown Gaza City, violated international
humanitarian law (the laws of war), which requires taking all feasible precautions to avoid
civilian harm and prohibits indiscriminate attacks.
The unlawful use of white phosphorus was neither incidental nor accidental. It was repeated
over time and in different locations, with the IDF “air-bursting” the munition in populated
areas up to the last days of its military operation. Even if intended as an obscurant rather
than as a weapon, the IDF’s repeated firing of air-burst white phosphorus shells from 155mm
artillery into densely populated areas was indiscriminate and indicates the commission of
The dangers posed by white phosphorus to civilians were well-known to Israeli commanders,
who have used the munition for many years.
When it wanted an obscurant for its forces, the IDF had a readily available and non-lethal
alternative to white phosphorus—smoke shells produced by an Israeli company. The IDF
could have used those shells to the same effect and dramatically reduced the harm to