Gaza: Death’s Laboratory
Foreign Policy In Focus
“It was as if they had stepped on a mine, but there was no shrapnel in the wound. 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”—Dr. Erik Fosse, Norwegian cardiologist who worked in Gaza hospitals during the recent war. (1)
What Dr. Fosse was describing was the effects of a U.S. “focused lethality” weapon that minimalizes explosive damage to structures while inflicting catastrophic wounds on its victims. The question is, where did the Israelis get them, and was their widespread use in the attack on Gaza a field test for a new generation of weapons?
The specific weapon is called a Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) and was developed by the U.S. Air Force and University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2000. (2) The weapon wraps the high explosives HMX or RDX with a tungsten alloy and other metals like cobalt, nickel or iron, in a carbon fiber/epoxy container. When the bomb explodes, the container evaporates and the tungsten turns into micro-shrapnel that is extremely lethal up to about 13 feet.
Tungsten is inert, so it does not react chemically with the explosive. While a non-inert metal like aluminum would increase the blast, tungsten actually contains the explosion to a limited area.
Within the weapon’s range, however, it is inordinately lethal. According to Norwegian doctor Mad Gilbert, the blast results multiple amputations and “very severe fractures. The muscles are sort of split from the bones, hanging loose, and you also have quite severe burns.” (3)
Those who survive the initial blast quickly succumb to septicemia and organ collapse. “Initially, everything seems in order…but it turns out on operation that dozens of miniature particles can be found in all their organs,” says Dr. Jam Brommundt, a German doctor working in Kham Younis, a city in southern Gaza. “It seems to be some sort of explosive or shell that disperses tiny particles…that penetrate all organs, these miniature injuries, you are not able to attack them surgically.” According to Brommundt, the particles cause multiple organ failures. (4)
If, by some miracle, victims do survive, they are almost certain to develop rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS), a particularly deadly cancer that deeply embeds itself into tissue and is almost impossible to treat. A 2005 U.S. Department of health study found that tungsten stimulated RMS cancers even in very low doses. Out of 92 rats tested, 92 developed the cancer. (5)
While DIMEs were originally designed to avoid “collateral” damage generated by standard high explosive bombs, the weapon’s lethality and profound long-term toxicity hardly seems like an improvement.
It appears DIME weapons may have been used in the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but not enough to alarm medical workers. But in Gaza, the ordinance was widely used. Al-Shifta alone has seen 100 to 150 such patients. (6)
So was Gaza a test of DIME?
Dr. Gilbert told the Oslo Gardermoen, “There is a strong suspicion I think that Gaza is now being used as a test laboratory for new weapons.” (7)
DIME is a U.S. invention. Did the Israelis get the weapons from the U.S., or did they design similar ones themselves? Given the close relations between the two militaries, it is not unlikely that the U.S. Air Force supplied the weapons or, at least, the specifications on how to construct them. And since the U.S. has yet to use the device in a war, it would certainly benefit from seeing how these new “focused lethality” weapons worked under battlefield conditions.
Marc Garlasco, Human Rights Watch’s senior military advisor, says “It remains to be seen how Israel has acquired the technology, whether they purchased weapons from the United States under some agreement, or if they in fact licensed or developed their own type of munitions.” (8)
DIME weapons are not banned under the Geneva Conventions because they have never been officially tested. However, any weapon capable of inflicting such horrendous damage is normally barred from use, particularly in one of the most densely populated regions in the world
For one thing, no one is sure about how long the tungsten remains in the environment or how it could affect people who return to homes attacked by a DIME. University of Arizona cancer researcher Dr. Mark Witten, who investigates links between tungsten and leukemia, says that in his opinion “there needs to be much more research on the health effects of tungsten before the military increases its usage.” (9)
DIMEs were not the only controversial weapons used in Gaza. The Israeli Self-Defense Forces (IDF) also made generous use of white phosphorus, a chemical that burns with intense heat and inflicts terrible burns on victims. In its vapor form it also damages breathing passages
International law prohibits the weapon’s use near population areas and requires that “all reasonable precautions” be taken to avoid civilians.
Israel initially denied it was using the chemical. “The IDF acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorus,” said Israel’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi on Jan. 13. (10)
But eyewitness accounts in Gaza and Israel soon forced the IDF to admit that they were, indeed, using the substance. On Jan 20, the IDF confessed to using phosphorus artillery shells as smoke screens, as well as 200 U.S.-made M825A1 phosphorus mortar shells on “Hamas fighters and rocket launching crews in northern Gaza.” (11)
Three of those shells hit the UN Works and Relief Agency compound Jan, .15, igniting a fire that destroyed hundreds of tons of humanitarian supplies. Al-Quds hospital in Gaza City was also hit by a phosphorus shell. The Israelis say there were Hamas fighters near the two targets, a charge that witnesses adamantly deny. (12)
Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International said, “Such extensive use of this weapon in Gaza’s densely-populated residential neighborhoods…and its toll on civilians, is a war crime.” (13)
Israel is also accused of using depleted uranium ammunition (DUA), which a UN sub-commission in 2002 found in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the International Convention Against Torture, the Conventional Weapons Convention, and the Hague Conventions against the use of poison weapons.
DUA is not highly radioactive, but after exploding some of it turns into a gas that can easily be inhaled. The dense shrapnel that survives also tends to bury itself deeply, leaching low-level radioactivity into water tables.
Other human rights groups, including B’Tselem, Gisha, and Physicians for Human Rights, charge that the IDF intentionally targeted medical personal, killing over a dozen, including paramedics and ambulance drivers.
The International Federation for Human Rights called upon the UN Security Council to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes. (14)
While the Israelis dismiss the war crimes charges, the fact that the Israeli cabinet held a special meeting on Jan 25 to discuss the issue suggests they are concerned they could be charged with “disproportionate” use of force. (15) The Geneva Conventions require belligerents to at “all times” distinguish between combatants and civilians and to avoid “disproportionate force” in seeking military gains.
Hamas’ use of unguided missiles fired at Israel would also be a war crime under the Conventions.
“The one-sidedness of casualty figures is one measure of disproportion,” says Richard Falk, the UN’s human rights envoy for the occupied territories. (16) A total of 14 Israelis have been killed in the fighting, three of them civilians killed by rockets, 11 of them soldiers, four of the latter by “friendly fire.” Some 50 IDF soldiers were also wounded.
In contrast, 1330 Palestinians have died and 5450 were injured, the overwhelming bulk of them civilians. (17)
“This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare, which we ask to be investigated by the Commission of War Crimes,” a coalition of Israeli human rights groups and Amnesty International said in a joint statement. “The responsibility of the state of Israel is beyond doubt.” (18)
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann would coordinate the defense of any soldier or commander charged with a war crime. In any case, the U.S. would veto any effort by the UN Security Council to refer Israelis to the International Court at The Hague. (19)
But, as the Financial Times points out, “all countries have an obligation to search out those accused of ‘grave’ breaches of the rules of war and to put them on trial or extradite them to a country that will.”
That was the basis under which Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in Britain in 1998.
“We’re in a seismic shift in international law,” Amnesty International legal advisor Christopher Hall told the Financial Times, who says that Israel’s foreign ministry is already examining the risk to Israelis who travel abroad.
“It’s like walking across the street against a red light,” he says. “The risk may be low, but you’re going to think twice before committing a crime or traveling if you have committed one.” (20)
1) “Tungsten Bombs leaves Israel’s Victims with Mystery Wounds,” Independent, 1/18/09
2) Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME) Global Security.org
3) DIME: A New Horror, Democracy Now interview
4) Did Israel Use ‘Horrific’ New Weapon in Gaza? Alternet, 1/22/09
5) “Embedded Weapons-Grade Tungsten Alloy Sharpnel Rapidly Induces Metastatic High Grade Rhabdomyosarcomas in F344 Rats,” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
6) “Alarm Spreads Over Use of Lethal New Weapons,” Inter Press Service, 1/22/09
7) “Israel Turns Gaza Into Weapons Testing Lab?” NowPublic News Coverage, 1/18/09
8) “White Phosphorous and dense inert metal, Democracy New, 1/14/09
9) “Dense Inert Metal Experiment Used in Israel in July-August 2000 Operation “Summer Rain” on the Gaza Palestinians,” by Hayam Noir, 10/12/06
10) “Gaza: Israel Under Fire for Alleged White Phosphorous Use,” Christian Science Monitor, 1/14/09
11) “Israel Admits Troops May have Used Phosphorous Shells in Gaza,” Guardian, 1/21/09
12) “Israel Use of White Phosphorous in Gaza ‘Undeniable’: Amnesty,” Agence France Presse, 1/19/09
13) Ibid, AFP 1/19/09
14) “Gaza’s Baffling Burnt Organs, Torn Tissues, uruknet. info
15) “Israel rejects War Crimes Outcry,” Los Angeles Times, 1/26/09
16) “Pressure Mounts for Israel War Crimes Probe,: Financial Times, 1/15/09
17) “Israel readies For Fight Against War Crimes,” Agence France Press, 1/23/09
18) Ibid, uruknet. info
19) Ibid, AFP, 1/23/09
20) Ibid FT, 1/15/09