‘And the light shone in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not..’ Due to its high reactivity, phosphorus is never found as a free element in nature on Earth. The first form of phosphorus to be discovered (white phosphorus, discovered in 1669) emits a faint glow upon exposure to oxygen — hence its name given from Greek mythology,Φωσφόρος meaning “light-bearer” (Latin Lucifer), referring to the “Morning Star“, or Venus. Unsurprising, really, the stuff burns with a brilliant, intensely hot flame and travels through flesh like butter. I have a friend with an old phosphorus burn on his arm which looks more like a bullet hole. It vaporised the skin, leaving small, neat puckers. It’s a surprise then, to discover that Israel has been roundly and universally accused of using white phosphorus against civilians. It is not considered a chemical weapon and is not banned per se, it ignites and burns on contact with oxygen and creates a smokescreen to conceal troop movement.
It also interferes with infra-red optics and weapon-tracking systems, thus protecting military forces from guided weapons such as anti-tank missiles. When WP comes into contact with people or objects, though, it creates an intense and persistent burn. It can also be used as a weapon against military targets.
The IDF has said “smoke shells are not an incendiary weapon” and defended its actions. Using any weapon for a creative purpose other than that for which it might have originally been designed seems to be at the heart of the matter. Alternatively, Hamas’ legendary disregard for the safety of its own people is reason enough to fire phosphorus shells themselves then blame Israel for doing it. Additionally American troops used similar phosphorus ‘flares’ in Iraq, which illuminate an area, but if they land in houses, they ricochet around burning the house from the inside, rather like napalm.
I am so tired of this. Once again, the propaganda machine muddies the waters and Israel needs continually clear, unambiguous strategies to get her off the back foot. War is nasty, brutish but usually mercifully short and collateral damage, although most regrettable, in an urban theatre is almost certain and engagement of any kind will almost invariably generate it. To the bleaters about war crimes – the old adage ‘we didn’t start the fight’ seems an appropriate opening salvo.