Excruciating burns and lifelong suffering: The use of white phosphorus from Fallujah to Palestine

8 min read
13 October, 2023

A chemical that burns flesh to the bone, turns your eyelids inside out, accumulates toxic fluid in your lungs, and causes an excruciating death within 24-48 hours.

Cities have been turned into dystopian horrors. Babies are born with harrowing neural anomalies, two heads, others with none, missing limbs, or none at all: a living hell. 

Live Story

These are just some of the effects of white phosphorus, a chemical weapon used by Israel on the citizens of Gaza in the past few days, increasing the suffering of a civilian population already living under blockade. 

The Iraqi perspective on the use of chemical weapons is deeply rooted in our own tragic history, spanning over two decades of US-led occupation of our homeland.

Iraqis are well aware of the chemical's effects, therefore we are in a unique position to raise awareness of these horrible atrocities. 

"What does the future hold in store for Gaza's next generation? They will likely be born under blockade, and run the risk of suffering from birth defects as a result of their occupier's use of chemical weapons"

For those unaware, white phosphorous is a barbaric instrument of warfare. According to international humanitarian law, its use constitutes a war crime. Underpinned by international law and a focus on human rights, this article focuses on why this cruel chemical should never, ever be used. 

Human Rights Watch charged Israel with using white phosphorous in Gaza, saying it has a "significant incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire".

The US-based rights group said it verified videos taken in Lebanon on 10 October and Gaza on 11 October, which showed "multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza City port and two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border".

It provided links to two videos posted on social media that it said showed "155mm white phosphorus artillery projectiles being used, apparently as smokescreens, marking, or signalling".

"The use of white phosphorus in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, magnifies the risk to civilians and violates the international humanitarian law prohibition on putting civilians at unnecessary risk," Human Rights Watch stated in their report

White phosphorous is an incendiary weapon, with the UN defining incendiary weapons as “designed to set fire to objects or cause burn or respiratory injury to people through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, resulting from a chemical reaction of a flammable substance.”

The aftereffects and injuries from exposure to incendiary weapons “are severe and their effects are often fatal. Victims who survive suffer from injuries that are difficult to treat and lead to long-term physical and psychological injury.”

“Any time that white phosphorus is used in crowded civilian areas, it poses a high risk of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering,” said Lama FakihMiddle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “White phosphorous is unlawfully indiscriminate when airburst in populated urban areas, where it can burn down houses and cause egregious harm to civilians.”

In November 2004, US forces spearheaded a military operation in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, located just west of Baghdad, with the objective of eliminating "Iraqi insurgents" from the area, with their choice of weapon being white phosphorous.

Entire neighbourhoods have been wiped out by Israel's blanket bombing [Getty Images]
Entire neighbourhoods have been wiped out by Israel's blanket bombing [Getty Images]

The chemical bursts into flames when it hits oxygen, burning at up to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Celsius) until nothing is left or the oxygen supply is cut, producing an encompassing smoke screen. In an urban setting, the desired outcome is considerably more lethal.

The munitions can re-ignite weeks after they were first used, further harming those who inhabit the heavily populated areas where they have been deployed, in addition to the toxic chemicals having already covered everything in sight.

At the time, Professor Paul Rodgers from the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford stated that the operation would have qualified as launching a chemical weapon if it had been "deliberately aimed at people to have a chemical effect.” This was the intended effect, and it worked. 

Iraqi citizens evacuated the city in a desperate attempt to avoid impending doom. Their vision was obscured by thick grey clouds of smoke, petrifying everyone in fear of its deadly touch.

Only 30,000 to 50,000 people remained after the attack drove the majority of Fallujah’s 300,000 residents to flee.

Gaza fears 'Second Nakba'
'In the blink of an eye, we became homeless': Gaza's population seeks shelter from vindictive Israeli assault
Breaking out of the Gaza cage: Why the 7 October attack is not Israel's 9/11
How Hamas caught Israel by surprise and risked its future

In our current situation, some two decades later, Gazans would do anything to have the chance to escape such chemical weapons.

After telling the residents of Gaza to flee to Egypt to escape air raids, Israel shelled their only escape route, the Rafah border crossing. Where else are 2+ million people, confined to the world's largest open-air prison, supposed to go when they are surrounded on all sides?

Two years after the US operation in Fallujah, a doctor named Samira Alani began logging birth defect numbers in newborns, after she detected a surge in cases. She spent the following years doing meticulous research into these mutations, trying to understand their underlying cause.

"The use of white phosphorus in densely populated areas of Gaza violates the requirement under international humanitarian law to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life"

What makes white phosphorus even more sinister is the fact that the chemicals persist in the environment and do not simply evaporate. As a result, cities remain contaminated with toxic substances for years, unbeknownst to the civilians who populate them.

170 infants were reported to have been delivered at Fallujah General Hospital in September 2009. The majority of newborns had the malformations that Dr Alani had been tracking since 2006, and by seven days, 24% had passed away.

Mothers facing toxic exposure had ended up giving birth to children who had been mutated from second-hand radiation exposure, with their children being sentenced to a lifetime of extreme health difficulties if they managed to make it out of the hospital alive.

What does the future hold in store for Gaza's next generation? They will likely be born under blockade, and run the risk of suffering from birth defects as a result of their occupier's use of chemical weapons.

Children under 15 years old constitute half of Gaza's population, and a staggering 91% of them suffer from PTSD.

For a 15-year-old Palestinian child today in Gaza, their entire existence has been shaped by the harrowing experience of five distinct wars with Israel (including the one we’re currently witnessing).

If these children survive to adulthood, will they see five more wars in the next fifteen years? Is there a likelihood that their own children will be born with the same proportion of deformities? What kind of future awaits a child with such defects in an environment where the occupying power can effortlessly shut off all fuel and energy sources, rendering hospitals inoperable at the click of a finger?

Let's not forget that Israel has previously used white phosphorus on Gaza, during the 22-day military assault in 2008-2009. The prior use of this weapon demonstrates with certainty that its deployment is deliberate and with malicious intent, with the effect of punishing Gazans collectively and in the long term in mind.

As reported by Human Rights Watch in regards to its use by Israel in 2008-2009, they stated, “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 civilians.

“The consistent use of air-burst white phosphorus instead of smoke projectiles, especially where no Israeli forces were on the ground, strongly suggests that the IDF was not using the munition for its obscurant qualities, but rather for its incendiary effect,” HRW also stated.

Palestinian and foreign doctors who were attending to the patients saw that once their wounds had been treated, they began to burn once more. Serious burn victims had to be transferred to Egypt because Gazan hospitals lacked the resources to adequately treat patients, particularly the diagnostic equipment necessary to identify the cause of the burns. Some of them required skin grafts as a result of their injuries.

The Israeli military, in 2013, announced that it was “to stop using artillery shells with white phosphorus to create smokescreens on the battlefield.” Ten years later, has this happened?

Live Story

No matter the situation, it's essential to oppose the use of white phosphorus and similar munitions. The devastating and lasting consequences they inflict on future generations are inconceivable. We must hold responsible those who committed these war crimes, to uphold justice. 

Iraqis all around the world stand side to side with our brothers and sisters in Gaza to denounce the unlawful use of chemical weapons as defined by international law, from Baghdad to Beit Hanoun, and Karbala to Khan Yunis.

Saoud Khalaf is a British-born Iraqi filmmaker and writer based in London. His videos, which have garnered millions of views across social media, focus on social justice for marginalised groups with specific attention on the Middle East. His latest documentary premiered at the Southbank Centre for Refugee Week.

Follow him on Twitter: @saoudkhalaf_