There’s no doubt that white phosphorous ammunition was used by Israel in the Gaza Strip fighting.
Pictures show what look like flaming baseballs from a 155mm round bouncing around a courtyard among vehicles with UN and Ambulance painted on them. Israeli officials contend that the open courtyards of schools, hospitals and other buildings were used by Hamas as mortar and rocket launching sites.
White phosphorous, also referred to as WP or Willie Pete, is not being used as an anti-personnel weapon, according to the Israel Defense Force. Artillery shells, some made by the U.S. and some by Israel, disperse 116 wedges of WP-impregnated felt in 29-wedge increments above a target. Air causes the WP to ignite. The wedges bounce around and then burn for about 15 min. to create smoke to mask helicopter flights and tactical troop movements. Its use is considered legal if it is not used as a weapon.
Hamas supporters contend it’s used as an anti-personnel weapon and doctors have reported deep and unusual burns among some of their patients. A veteran U.S. Army soldier described the effects of WP weapons when used against other soldiers. “The Old Willie Peter broke into small solid, but crumbly fragments which burned through cloth and flesh and was not extinguishable by water,” he says. The M825A1 rounds used in the Gaza Strip were designed for target marking and smoke generation.
In the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces normally covered casualty evacuation with heavy artillery fire, using M825A1 rounds. The air-burst white phosphorous smoke projectiles are used to create “safe-zones”. These shells caused the dramatic fire rain pictures, but the IDF says they were not used as weapons. Nevertheless, the Army has since admitted single incidents, in which reservist mortar crews fired phosphorus rounds - which is currently being investigated by senior officers to determine if firing of the ammunition was officially authorized.
However, there has been very little anti-aircraft fire in the conflict – certainly none that was effective.
“There have been no confirmed use of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles,” says a U.S. defense official. However, there were frequent reports by pilots flying helicopters at low altitude that they were fired upon by Russian-made, 12.5mm DShK ‘Dushka’ anti-aircraft machine guns, says an Israeli analyst. Although medical evacuation helicopters actually landed in the middle of the fire-beaten combat zones, none were hit, he says.
Air power and aerial bombardment with army and navy missiles and artillery were key tools to maximize destruction of Hamas facilities without running up Israeli casualties or exposing them to capture. U.S. analysts have been tracking the fighting in Gaza closely and say that both sides have conducted a relatively atrocity-free fight so far, and the Israeli air force has not been seriously threatened by Hamas air defense weapons.
The Gaza campaign against Hamas was in sharp contrast to 2006 fighting in Lebanon. Israeli army and air force regulars carried the initial battle and reservists were fed into the fight later. The Defense Ministry was better prepared to clamp down on access to Gaza and any electronic traffic coming from the area which includes satellite and cell phone traffic and direct press access. It also banned the identification of senior unit commanders which would reveal order of battle information to Hamas.
“The IDF is controlling media access to Gaza, by sealing it off from correspondents as a direct lesson learned from Lebanon,” confirms a U.S. defense official says. “[In the Lebanon conflict] the IDF had major problems with press all over the battle area [which revealed operational information and was sometimes seen as] contradicting what the Israeli government was saying to its citizens.”
After several days of an outcry by Israeli defense correspondents, single reporters were allowed into the combat zone, but were restricted to relatively safe environments. Their reports were pooled for the rest of the press. Wounded soldiers were ordered to reveal neither details of the fighting nor the circumstances in which they received their wounds. Only data approved by military censors was released.
Photos: Agence France-Presse