A Burning Girl in Gaza

Human rights organizations, among them Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have denounced that Israel has used U.S.-supplied white phosphorus in Southern Lebanon and in Gaza. Because of the serious damage it causes in the civilian population, rights groups say that the use of white phosphorus should be investigated as a war crime.

White phosphorus can stick to the skin of its victims, and can potentially cause fatal burns and respiratory damage. This has led to its use being prohibited under international humanitarian law. The ones sent by the U.S. and being used by Israel were probably produced by ammunition depots in Louisiana and Arkansas in 1989 and 1992.

The rounds are not intended to be used as incendiary weapons but rather to produce white smoke to hide soldiers from enemy forces. Following publication of a story in The Washington Post regarding use of white phosphorus by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman, said that the administration was concerned about the use of white phosphorus munitions and would try to learn more about this issue. This was perhaps an elegant way of saying that nothing would be done on this issue.

Human Rights Watch verified videos from Lebanon and Gaza, showed that on October 10 and 11, 2023, there were multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza City port and towards two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border, increasing the chances of ore confrontations with Lebanese forces.

What makes white phosphorus particularly dangerous to people is that it can severely burn them and cause lifelong suffering. As Lama Fakih, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch has stated, “White phosphorus is unlawfully indiscriminate when airburst in populated urban areas, where it can burn down houses and cause egregious harm to civilians.”

International humanitarian law requires that all precautions should be taken to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. This concern arises from the technique used by the IDF of air bursting white phosphorus projectiles. White phosphorus projectiles spread over a wide area, thereby exposing more civilians to harm than a localized ground burst would produce.

Photographs of civilian casualties -mostly women and children- in Gaza fail to convey the horror of the suffering. However, in his poem “You and I Are Disappearing,” the American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, dramatically writes about the effects of burning on a young woman.

“You and I Are Disappearing”

Yusef Komunyakaa

—Bjöm Håkansson

The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak
she burns like a piece of paper.
She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her
at dusk.
We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice.
She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip
of a banker’s cigar,
silent as quicksilver.
A tiger under a rainbow
at nightfall.
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”