As Israel’s military operation passes the two-week mark, Palestinian hospitals in the Gaza Strip are struggling to deal with the continuous flow of the wounded and the dead. The weapons Israel is employing are adding to the brutality of the ongoing attack, which has already claimed the lives of over 600 Palestinian men, women and children, with around 4,000 injured. A human rights group has confirmed Israel’s use of flechette shells, which spray thousands of tiny but lethal miniature darts over a wide area and experts have revealed the use of Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) bombs which have the potential to cause cancer. Reports are also surfacing that white phosphorus is again being used against the civilian population of Gaza.
The Palestinian Centre of Human Rights (PCHR) found flechette darts in the village of Khuzaa, east of Khan Younis, a few days ago. “They were fired into a residential area, injuring one woman in the chest,” said a spokesperson from the Gaza-based organisation. “Each bomb releases thousands of tiny nail like pieces which spread widely and randomly,” he added.
The munitions are not prohibited under international humanitarian law, said Israeli rights group B’Tselem. However, “Other rules of humanitarian law render their use in the Gaza Strip illegal. One of the most fundamental principles is the obligation to distinguish between those who are involved and those who are not involved in the fighting, and to avoid to the extent possible injury to those who are not involved. Deriving from this principle is the prohibition of the use of an imprecise weapon which is likely to result in civilian injuries.”
According to an Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson, though, “The IDF only uses ammunition that is legal under international law and in the way permitted by international law. Specifically, flechette bullets are in use by the IDF in this conflict when appropriate.”
Addressing reporters at a press conference last week, the undersecretary of the health ministry in Gaza claimed that medical teams have registered injuries consistent with those caused by DIME and other banned weapons. Youssef Abul Resh pointed out that DIME bombs contain tungsten, a carcinogenic metal that on explosion splinters into extremely hot pieces of shrapnel that can slice through flesh and bone, with the power to sever the limbs of people within the blast radius. Packed with tungsten powder, the effect is like shrapnel but this shrapnel often dissolves in human tissue, making it difficult to discover the cause of injuries.
Dr Eric Fosse, a Norwegian doctor working in Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital, first noticed Israel’s use of the explosive device during the 2006 “Operation Summer Rains”, the Israeli assault on Gaza which killed over 400 Palestinians.
“It was as if [the victims] had stepped on a mine, but there was no shrapnel in the wounds,” said Dr Fosse to the Independent shortly after he returned to Norway. “Some had lost their legs. It looked as though they had been sliced off. I have been to war zones for 30 years, but I have never seen such injuries before.”
During Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9, the Israeli military also deployed artillery shells containing white phosphorus. This material ignites and burns on contact with oxygen, and continues burning at up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (816 degrees Celsius) until nothing is left or the oxygen supply is cut. When white phosphorus comes into contact with skin it creates intense and persistent burns through the flesh to the bone.
In Gaza, the hospitals are braced for the arrival of more dead and injured, and the use of such brutal weapons will only seek to push them further beyond the brink of viability. Dr Sobhi Skaik, head of surgery at Al-Shifa, told me via telephone: “We keep receiving dead bodies and many, many injuries. Bodies just keep coming and coming. We are not just getting patients with one injury that needs attention, we are getting a patient with his brain coming out of his skull, his chest crushed and his limbs missing. And we are getting dead bodies that come to us in pieces.”
Dr Skaik explained how the hospital has only six operating rooms, few medical supplies and exhausted staff. Frequent power cuts further endanger those in the operating theatres and Intensive Care Units. Around 50 per cent of the hospital’s staff are working without pay, and have been for many months as a result of financial and political issues.
“The number of injuries is huge compared to the hospitals’ capacity,” said Fikr Shalltoot, the Gaza programme director of Medical Aid for Palestinians, a British charity desperately trying to raise funds to procure more supplies. “There are 1,000 hospital beds in the whole of Gaza,” she explained. “An average of 200 injuries are coming to them every day. The hospitals are basically unable to cope.”
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