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January 16, 2009 4:32 PM   Subscribe

Willy Pete - Now It’s a Chemical Weapon, Now It’s Not; was used by US forces in the siege of Fallujah. Now Haaretz has questioned if White Phosphoros is being used against Gaza. Here is apparent video proof. Willy Pete has a strange legality; but whether legal or not is certainly one of the nastiest chemicals used in warfare.
posted by adamvasco (62 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sometimes waterboarding isn't torture, sometimes it is...same story, different atrocity.
posted by Chuffy at 4:40 PM on January 16, 2009


"Red Cross: No evidence Israel is using white phosphorus illegally" [CSMonitor]
The International Committee of the Red Cross says white phosphorus is being used in Gaza. No question.

But they have no evidence that Israel is using it illegally.

“In some of the strikes in Gaza it’s pretty clear that phosphorus was used,” Peter Herby, head of the Red Cross mines-arms unit, told the Associated Press Tuesday. “But 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.”
posted by davidstandaford at 4:41 PM on January 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't have the expertise to make a determination of whether or not I agree that Israel is in fact using white phosphorous as the Red Cross alleges, or whether or not it is a problem if they are using it in the ways mentioned in the article [i.e. for smoke or illumination].
posted by davidstandaford at 4:43 PM on January 16, 2009


White phosphorus is nasty fucking stuff. Legal or not, anyone who uses it against other humans is evil.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:46 PM on January 16, 2009


Its use in Fallujah was horrific, and I think a war crime. That shit burns through skin to bone. It is napalm by any other name. In both cases, it has been used directly over civilians.
posted by fcummins at 4:47 PM on January 16, 2009


Terms like Willy Pete and Phossy jaw decrease the (apparent) threat greatly. Certain pictures make it seem rather artistic. But the physical impacts are just fsking nasty. Toss in some depleted uranium, and the long-term effects are really awful.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:51 PM on January 16, 2009


Hmm...

However, Herby said evidence is still limited because of the difficulties of gaining access to Gaza, where Palestinian health officials say more than 900 people have been killed and 4,250 wounded since Israel launched its offensive late last month. Israel says the operation aims to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks over the border.

Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of firing phosphorous shells and warned of the possibilities of extreme fire and civilian injuries. The chemical is suspected in the cases of 10 burn victims who had skin peeling off their faces and bodies.


Case closed!
posted by Artw at 4:59 PM on January 16, 2009


White phosphorus burns all the way to the bone. Several members of the Israeli military and government should be tried for war crimes for its use as a weapon.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:05 PM on January 16, 2009


Artw: Case closed!
same article:
Herby said that using phosphorus to illuminate a target or create smoke is legitimate under international law, and that there was no evidence the Jewish state was intentionally using phosphorus in a questionable way, such as burning down buildings or consciously putting civilians at risk.
posted by davidstandaford at 5:05 PM on January 16, 2009


White Phosphorus reminds me of the old joke that chemical weapons are only illegal in war if those chemicals aren't on fire.

From talking to ex-military people, I seem to remember white phosphorus being quite commonly used by modern infantries, so it wouldn't surprise me if Israel was using them legally. However, without more information, it's difficult to tell.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:06 PM on January 16, 2009


For some reason the phrase "Willy Peter, make you a buh lievah" sticks in my mind from some random Viet Nam novel.
posted by fixedgear at 5:10 PM on January 16, 2009


I don't buy the "smoke screen" excuse. Why not simply use smoke?
posted by wastelands at 5:11 PM on January 16, 2009


davidstandaford - yes, that would be that quote again.
posted by Artw at 5:12 PM on January 16, 2009


davidstandaford - yes, that would be that quote again.

Well, you seemed to blissfully sail by the first time without responding so I thought I would give you another chance.
posted by davidstandaford at 5:21 PM on January 16, 2009


When we use it, it's called "Powdered Freedom" and it's perfectly fine.
posted by Legomancer at 5:24 PM on January 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


And don't forget the DIME bombs.

Your tax dollars at work.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:27 PM on January 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't buy the "smoke screen" excuse. Why not simply use smoke?

Uh, because it is in many ways superior to smoke for that application? Wikipedia actually has a pretty good explanation of why WP is better than smoke for screening and so forth.

I have no idea how Israel is using WP. I do suspect that if they were targetting people with it we would hear it being screamed from the rooftops by the IRC and others. But WP has a bunch of quite legitimate uses so the simple fact that Israel is using it in some fashion tells us nothing.
posted by Justinian at 5:33 PM on January 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Legal or not, anyone who uses it against other humans is evil.

Well, that's the point: using it against humans is bad, but using it to create smoke or mark targets is... well, neutral, let's say.

In military munitions, white phosporous (or some variation) is used because it burns on contact with air and can't be doused, and generates a lot of smoke. Any smoke generating munition (smoke grenade, smoke rounds for mortars/artillery) uses WP, and there really aren't munitions that aren't for generating smoke (or incendiary rounds, for starting fires) that use WP--it's just not all that useful for directly killing people. It creates horrific injuries, yes, but if your aim is to kill the enemy, standard explosives are much more effective.

What confuses the issue a lot is its use as an incendiary device--if a WP rounds hits a wooden building, you've got a fire. The firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo were accomplished with a mix of high explosive and incendiary rounds. HE creates a lot of burnable debris, and WP lights it up.

To the extent, then, that the use of WP is a war crime, it's not about trying to burn people with it (which is rarely directly effective), it's more about its indiscriminate use to burn things down. Collateral damage as purpose, rather than side effect, as it were.
posted by fatbird at 5:40 PM on January 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


I don't buy the "smoke screen" excuse. Why not simply use smoke?

How are you going to create that smoke? WP is a fantastically effective way of doing so, especially something that can be packaged and used as a munition. A small amount creates copious, dense smoke that's mostly non-toxic--infantry is expected to attack through a WP smokescreen. Tanks carry smoke dispensers that are basically an array of smoke grenades--pop off a few and flee in the cloud. In the army, I was trained to fire mortars, and the two major types of ammunition we used were high explosive and WP (creating smokescreens being the only purpose discussed with us).
posted by fatbird at 5:52 PM on January 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Isn't it also being claimed that the UNRWA complex in Gaza was bombed with WP?
posted by orme at 6:01 PM on January 16, 2009


Wikipedia:
Modern incendiary bombs usually contain thermite, made from aluminum and ferric oxide. The most effective formula is 25% aluminium and 75% iron oxide. It takes very high temperatures to ignite, but when alight, it can burn through solid steel. In WWII, such devices were employed in incendiary grenades to burn through heavy armor plate, or as a quick welding mechanism to destroy artillery and other complex machined weapons.
Someone above mentioned the firebombing of Tokyo. Those incendiary bombs were based on napalm, not on white phosphorous.
posted by Class Goat at 6:09 PM on January 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


This like asking if during the Rwandan Genocide if the Hutus were using illegal knives with a nasty extra pointy bit.

The differences are also considerable, the Rwandan Genocide was much worse, it killed ~0.5-1M where as the Israeli massacre has killed about a 1000 people and destroyed millions of dollars worth of infrastructure. The Hutu were also not using US many made weapons and nor did they receive billions of dollars toward their state and the endorsement of senior US politicians for their massacre.
posted by sien at 6:13 PM on January 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Someone above mentioned the firebombing of Tokyo. Those incendiary bombs were based on napalm, not on white phosphorous.

That was me. My mistake, but it then reinforces the point that WP is mostly used for its smoke causing effect. Of course, then I read this in the article on Fallujah:
three US soldiers who participated said WP shells were used against insurgents taking cover in trenches. Writing in the March-April edition of Field Artillery... the three artillery men said: "WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions ... and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against insurgents in trench lines and spider holes ... We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents using WP to flush them out and high explosive shells (HE) to take them out."
I'm not sure how WP would flush them out. Someone under cover would be protected from direct contact with the phosphorous, and the smoke is just... smoke. I've been in smoke clouds before, and it's tough to breath because of the density, but it also passes relatively quickly, moreso if there's a wind.
posted by fatbird at 6:18 PM on January 16, 2009


Metafilter: Everyone's an expert.
posted by fingerbang at 6:18 PM on January 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


sien: The differences are also considerable, the Rwandan Genocide was much worse, it killed ~0.5-1M where as the Israeli massacre has killed about a 1000 people and destroyed millions of dollars worth of infrastructure. The Hutu were also not using US many made weapons and nor did they receive billions of dollars toward their state and the endorsement of senior US politicians for their massacre.

It should be immediately obvious that the Israelis aren't attempting a genocide. They're not using the right tactics - the cheapest, safest, and most efficient way to do so would be to sit back and indiscriminately shell the crap out of it with artillery and incendiary weapons. They wouldn't have sent troops in until everything was pretty much bombed flat.
posted by Mitrovarr at 6:25 PM on January 16, 2009


It should be immediately obvious that the Israelis aren't attempting a genocide.

Nobody said they were. Somebody just said the Rwandan Genocide was worse than the Israeli massacre, and this almost certainly correct.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 6:43 PM on January 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Heh. 'Massacre'. Heh.
posted by chlorus at 6:55 PM on January 16, 2009


Gaza invasion: Powered by the U.S. Taxpayers are spending over $1 billion to send refined fuel to the Israeli military -- at a time when Israel doesn't need it and America does.
posted by homunculus at 6:57 PM on January 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, you seemed to blissfully sail by the first time without responding so I thought I would give you another chance.

Just giving you the continuation.
posted by Artw at 7:23 PM on January 16, 2009


Heh. 'Massacre'. Heh.

Yeah, it's a regular laugh riot.
posted by Amanojaku at 7:58 PM on January 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's a regular laugh riot.

I think he was just expressing the opinion that characterization as a "massacre" is specious, not that the underlying event (however it should be characterized) is funny.

Personally, I don't know what a massacre is with any specificity, so I have no opinion. There are certainly exemplars of both massacres and non-massacres: herding 1,000 unarmed people into a pen, then machine gunning them to death is clearly a massacre, but eating an orange clearly isn't. In between, though, who knows.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 8:05 PM on January 16, 2009


Previously: Willy Pete I shall hate you.
posted by Chuckles at 8:49 PM on January 16, 2009


davidstandaford writes "that there was no evidence the Jewish state was intentionally using phosphorus in a questionable way, such as burning down buildings or consciously putting civilians at risk."

It's not ethnic cleansing if it's "collateral damage". It's terrorism if Khalid puts on an explosive vest and gets on a bus full of Israeli kids to takeout one IDF soldier; it's "defending Israel's right to exist" if Avi drops a cluster bomb on a Gazan school full of kids, to take out one reported possible "sniper".
posted by orthogonality at 8:59 PM on January 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


How are you going to create that smoke? WP is a fantastically effective way of doing so, especially something that can be packaged and used as a munition. A small amount creates copious, dense smoke that's mostly non-toxic--infantry is expected to attack through a WP smokescreen. Tanks carry smoke dispensers that are basically an array of smoke grenades--pop off a few and flee in the cloud. In the army, I was trained to fire mortars, and the two major types of ammunition we used were high explosive and WP (creating smokescreens being the only purpose discussed with us).

Perhaps the problem here is that making smoke and burning human beings are not mutually exclusive goals. To put it another way: you were trained to use it for smokescreens, but were you trained to not use it against exposed people where you might otherwise want a smokescreen? I'll bet that a lot of the time you just happen to want a smokescreen exactly in the middle of a bunch of people.. not that I actually know or anything, just seems likely.
posted by Chuckles at 9:06 PM on January 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's terrorism if Khalid puts on an explosive vest and gets on a bus full of Israeli kids to takeout one IDF soldier; it's "defending Israel's right to exist" if Avi drops a cluster bomb on a Gazan school full of kids, to take out one reported possible "sniper".

Did either of those events even happen?
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 9:29 PM on January 16, 2009


To put it another way: you were trained to use it for smokescreens, but were you trained to not use it against exposed people where you might otherwise want a smokescreen? I'll bet that a lot of the time you just happen to want a smokescreen exactly in the middle of a bunch of people..

When you're firing mortars or artillery, you don't know what you're shooting at. You're manning a crew served weapon, and orders are yelled at you by the fire controller (bearing, elevation, etc.), who generated them from a computer into which he entered a grid co-ordinate given him by a forward observer. You're up to 11km away from your target with 81mm mortars (~20, I believe, with heavy artillery), and never closer than half a kilometer unless you're being overrun. The only way you'd see the result of your work is if you were on an elevation, and by doctrine, mortars and artillery are indirect fire that's ideally located behind an elevation for cover.

As for wanting a smokescreen in the middle of a bunch of people, I don't see the point. You use smoke for concealment, so it's either launched at a battlefield during an attack to cover the approach, or a retreat. Putting a smokescreen on a crowd accomplishes nothing useful--either you're trying to kill them, in which case they're now hidden, or you're trying to control them, in which case you've created mass confusion, and they're now hidden.

Of course, I was trained to fight Russians in Germany. Counter-insurgency warfare wasn't even on the horizon. And a lot of peacetime ideas about tactics get evolved by the battlefield, for good or bad.
posted by fatbird at 9:33 PM on January 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


And don't forget the DIME bombs.

Holy shit.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:06 PM on January 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


" 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.”

Except, of course, for the fact that live broadcasts on Al Jazeera's English channel have documented numerous incidents in which white phosphorus has been used in combination with high explosives ordinance.

I wrote about one such claim made live on AJE a few days ago:

"A professor is on the phone from Jabalia, north of Gaza City. He is in a room in the center of his house, hiding with his children. Israel used what appears to be white phosphorus, and he reported that several nearby houses are on fire. He heard something fall on top of his house, but isn't about to go out and check on it. Clearly, Israel has used other explosive ordinances as well... the pressure of these explosions have now blown out the house's windows, and he and his family are inside, coughing occasionally due to all the smoke."

White phosphorus attacks, in and of themselves, are borderline illegal when used in civilian areas. But when you use them alongside high explosives, that's "shake and bake"... which is quite definitely illegal in urban areas, in that it doesn't discriminate against who is driven out into the open by the smoke, only to be killed by the high explosives.
posted by markkraft at 11:14 PM on January 16, 2009


It's legal to use WP to make smoke; it's illegal to use WP to cause fires.

Law is stupid.
posted by rokusan at 12:59 AM on January 17, 2009


"Herby said that using phosphorus to illuminate a target or create smoke"

Who needs to do either of those in the 21st Century?

"illuminating a target" is pretty much obsolete given the use of NIGHT VISION remote drones with IR cameras, etc.

And what's the purpose of smoke? Screening large movements of armoured units? I'm not buying it -- Sounds like 50 year old excuses to me.
posted by mikelieman at 7:58 AM on January 17, 2009


Israel Should Stop the War and Let US Enjoy the Inauguration;
Cease fire Mooted;
55 Palestinians Killed Friday, including Little Girls

posted by homunculus at 8:58 AM on January 17, 2009


And what's the purpose of smoke? Screening large movements of armoured units? I'm not buying it -- Sounds like 50 year old excuses to me.

It doesn't seem at all implausible to me. If you want soldiers to advance across an open area, such as a field, square, or even up a street, that's open to enemy fire from a hidden location, a smoke screen strikes me as a very effective solution. What do you think the modern alternative would be?

As for illumination, I don't think all soldiers have night vision goggles, do they?
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 9:03 AM on January 17, 2009


Of course without the infrared screening properties of the WP smoke the Israelis would be vurnerable to the sophisticated guided weapons systems the Gazans have.
posted by Artw at 9:09 AM on January 17, 2009


I don't think all soldiers have night vision goggles, do they?

No, I think you're right. The ones who don't have night vision are called terrorists.
posted by Chuckles at 11:50 AM on January 17, 2009


Who needs to do either of those in the 21st Century?

The US Army, for one.

"illuminating a target" is pretty much obsolete given the use of NIGHT VISION remote drones with IR cameras, etc.

Infrared night vision equipment can either be active or passive. Passive IR equipment augments night vision, but is still somewhat dependent on available light.

And what's the purpose of smoke? Screening large movements of armoured units? I'm not buying it -- Sounds like 50 year old excuses to me.

Smoke is used to screen infantry and armor movement to this day, because it works. The modern alternative to a smoke screen is ... a smoke screen.
posted by me & my monkey at 12:14 PM on January 17, 2009


Sometimes waterboarding isn't torture, sometimes it is...same story, different atrocity.

I believe the correct term is "politically expedient".
posted by Evilspork at 1:43 PM on January 17, 2009


"illuminating a target" is pretty much obsolete given the use of NIGHT VISION remote drones with IR cameras, etc.

"Illuminating" also means simply "marking". In the daytime, a column of smoke is much more visible than a flare (or burning phosphorous).
posted by fatbird at 3:59 PM on January 17, 2009


The best argument for making WP illegal as a smoke bomb is that it gives soldiers who are using it to kill people the "just a smoke bomb defense."

I'm not sure how WP would flush them out. Someone under cover would be protected from direct contact with the phosphorous, and the smoke is just... smoke.

That's what I'd thought too, fatbird, but apparently not. According to wikipedia, part of the reason why WP is illegal as an antipersonnel weapon is that the smoke is in a gray area between normal smoke and chemical weapons. WP smoke is somewhat toxic, makes you cough even worse than ordinary smoke, and is an irritant to the mucous membranes. From this, my vague sense is that WP smoke is like a combination of tear gas and pepper spray, this while the shell also throws out burning goo that sticks to people and burns even underwater.

People who know more, correct me if necessary. After that, please edit Wikipedia.


Sounds like 50 year old excuses to me.

Oh I agree, and propelling hunks of metal from a tube by means of a little explosion went out with Napoleon.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:34 PM on January 17, 2009


It doesn't seem at all implausible to me. If you want soldiers to advance across an open area, such as a field, square, or even up a street, that's open to enemy fire from a hidden location, a smoke screen strikes me as a very effective solution

"Look Smoke! Fire mortars into it!"

Doesn't sound all that effective -- sounds like it gives away your position, and provides a target reference.
posted by mikelieman at 6:18 PM on January 17, 2009


Doesn't sound all that effective -- sounds like it gives away your position, and provides a target reference.

Try to reliably hit a target with a rifle from 100 meters. Now try to reliably hit a target with a rifle from 100 meters with a huge dense cloud of smoke between you and that target. Alternatively, try to provide accurate spotting information on that screened 100 meter target to relay to the guys running the mortar tubes.

Is the idea of concealment really controversial?

Re: WP, the rules of warfare have often struck me as pretty absurd. Shooting a uniformed enemy soldier with a rifle isn't considered a warcrime by anyone, but it's still a pretty awful way to die. Especially if the death comes a month later from infection. Does it really matter whether the civilian casualties in Gaza were caused by explosives or incendiaries?

"illuminating a target" is pretty much obsolete given the use of NIGHT VISION remote drones with IR cameras, etc.

War is still not a videogame.
posted by kavasa at 9:42 PM on January 17, 2009


Closeup pic of WP ordinance in Gaza
posted by Rhomboid at 10:26 PM on January 17, 2009


Israel accused of war crimes over 12-hour assault on Gaza village: White flags ignored and houses bulldozed with families inside, claim residents
posted by homunculus at 11:45 PM on January 17, 2009


Lull after the storm: Israel's declaration of a unilateral ceasefire is welcome but it still leaves open many crucial questions on the future of Gaza
posted by homunculus at 11:52 PM on January 17, 2009


Doesn't sound all that effective -- sounds like it gives away your position, and provides a target reference.

For the uses we're talking about here, smoke is deployed and made use of on the order of minutes--the screen comes down, and you either charge through it or start retreating. And if they can call mortars down on the smoke, then they can probably call mortars down on the position you're in anyway, so it doesn't make a huge difference as far as indirect fire goes.

You can call it implausible all you want, as if its implausibility implies that it's really there to burn civilians. But that's what the doctrines are, and it was used quite a lot (and worked quite a lot) in WWII. The kind of tactics we're discussing here with smokescreens haven't changed all that much--it's still men with rifles and tanks.

WP, the rules of warfare have often struck me as pretty absurd. Shooting a uniformed enemy soldier with a rifle isn't considered a warcrime by anyone, but it's still a pretty awful way to die.

I have a lot of trouble with the idea too, especially since so many of them are plausible on paper and absurd on the battlefield. I was told that you couldn't use .50 calibre machine guns on humans, only vehicles (and the humans inside them). NATO uses full metal jacket ammunition because fragmenting ammunition is considered "inhumane". Beyond the idea that there are significant differences in quality of death on the battlefield, there's the complete unenforcibility of a wide variety of them.
posted by fatbird at 10:50 AM on January 18, 2009


Gaza film shows white phosphorus from alleged Israeli attack: Palestinians try to put out burning chemical banned as a weapon under United Nations convention
posted by homunculus at 12:50 PM on January 19, 2009


Blind and burnt: Mahmoud, 14, young victim of banned white phosphorus shelling
posted by Artw at 3:15 PM on January 19, 2009


Amnesty International has accused Israel of using white phosphorus in civilian areas of the Gaza Strip
posted by adamvasco at 3:52 PM on January 19, 2009


Gaza doctors struggle to treat deadly burns consistent with white phosphorus: Dozens dying after Israeli attacks from injuries 'unlike any seen before' that medics say should not be fatal
posted by homunculus at 4:10 PM on January 20, 2009


More from Peter Herby...

Q:Does the ICRC consider white phosphorous weapons as they have been used in Gaza to be legal under international humanitarian law?

A: If ICRC delegates in the field gather credible and precise evidence of violations, or if ICRC medical personnel corroborate reports by others, the ICRC would begin by discussing this with the party concerned – rather than speaking publicly – in keeping with our standard practices. We have not commented publicly on the legality of the current use of phosphorous weapons by Israel, contrary to what has been attributed to us in recent media reports.

posted by Artw at 4:19 PM on January 20, 2009


Israel admits troops may have used phosphorus shells in Gaza
posted by adamvasco at 3:02 PM on January 21, 2009


UN investigator sees evidence of war crimes in Gaza
posted by Artw at 1:26 PM on January 22, 2009


You Have Moved on, But the Injured and Burned Children of Gaza Have Not; Call for Cyberspace Aid Convoy
posted by homunculus at 1:11 PM on February 16, 2009


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