Torturing the rule of law
President Obama may lack the nerve to stare down Liz Cheney or Bibi Netanyahu, but no one can deny that our commander in chief has the guts to take on a child soldier. Come August, a military commission in Guantánamo will try Omar Khadr, a Canadian national captured outside Kabul in 2002, when he was just 15 years old. This will be only the third Gitmo trial and the Obama administration’s first, and there won’t be anything kinder and gentler about it.
But give our government credit for breaking new ground: no nation has tried a child soldier for war crimes since World War II, and the decision to prosecute Khadr has drawn protests from UNICEF, headed by a former U.S. national security adviser, as well as every major human-rights group. The audacity doesn’t stop there: charges against Khadr include “murder in violation of the rules of war,” a newly minted war crime novel to the history of armed conflict. Battlefield deaths do not usually result in murder trials for prisoners of war. But according to the Department of Defense, Omar Khadr is no POW. He’s a non-uniformed, “unprivileged belligerent.” In the euphemistic lingo of Gitmo, Khadr is not even a prisoner, just a “detainee” who has been awaiting trial for the past eight years.
This kind of court action would have made great copy under Cheney and Bush, noisome proof of their barbarity. Now everyone except the Right’s usual panic-merchants is sick of Guantánamo and wishes it had closed, as Obama promised, by the end of 2009. But that deadline has passed, and Gitmo will surely be open next year too. Several reporters told me they had to beg their editors to be sent down to cover the Khadr story.
Anyone expecting to witness eye-popping tableaux of Rumsfeldian cruelty at Gitmo will be disappointed. It’s a military base like many others, except instead of the nearby base town with obligatory pawn shop, strip club, and Korean restaurant, you find an impermeable barrier sealing base dwellers and visitors inside. Overall, it’s not a bad deployment: soldiers can at least get a beer off duty, the snorkeling’s good, and the roads are free of IEDs. Given the paucity of lurid local color, scribblers who take the military flight—a leased Delta aircraft from Andrews Air Force Base—have been reduced to soliloquizing about Guantanamo’s McDonald’s and the banality of evil amid the French fries.
Gitmo’s population continues to trickle away, to a point. Over 600 prisoners have been let go, and of the 50 habeas petitions for release filed since the Boumediene decision in 2008, 36 have been granted. Were these really “the worst of the worst”? Hardly. Still, the Obama administration has announced that it will continue to hold some 45 detainees indefinitely without charges, one of George W. Bush’s most radical policies, now zealously defended by a smoother, smarter team of Democratic lawyers. This is exactly the kind of lawlessness that Harold Koh, a human-rights icon, used to condemn from his bully pulpit as dean of Yale Law. Now, as legal adviser to the Department of State, he’s tasked with justifying indefinite detention.
Of the roughly 180 remaining prisoners, Omar Khadr is the youngest. The 23-year-old is now in the midst of pretrial suppression hearings to determine whether his confession of throwing a grenade that killed a Special Forces medic is admissible as evidence. Few would deny that Khadr was tortured—one interrogator testified that he first laid eyes on the youth hooded and chained to the walls of his cell, standing with his shackled arms extended at head level. The only questions are how much torture, exactly what kind, for how long, and whether it contaminates the confession that Khadr later retracted. The first round of hearings afforded a clear vantage into the legal black hole that Guantanamo very much remains.
The Obama administration has striven to paper over the abyss with a layer of legality. There are new, improved rules for the military commissions, signed by the secretary of defense the night before the hearings began. Alas, they continue to fall short in core areas of juridical fairness. There is no right to a speedy trial, no pretrial investigation to weed out weak cases, and the defense’s requests for witnesses must go through the prosecution. There is no credit for pretrial detention—now nearly a decade for many prisoners—and no right of equal access to witnesses and evidence. Freshly invented war crimes like “material support for terrorism,” retroactively applied, violate the fundamental juridical principle of nulla poena sine lege, no crime without a prospective law.
The greatest flaw is structural: the interference of the “Convening Authority”—the politically appointed head of the commissions—into the prosecutions has been documented again and again. Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, former legal adviser to the Convening Authority, was so blatant in his attempts to secure convictions that he was banned from any involvement in three separate trials for his “undue command influence.” One former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo has said that Hartmann pushed hard for the Khadr case because he thought it would be “sexy, the kind of case the public’s going to get energized about.” Such micromanaging did not endear Hartmann to his colleagues: former deputy prison camps commander at Guantánamo Brig. Gen. Gregory Zanetti testified in 2008 that Hartmann’s conduct was “abusive, bullying and unprofessional … pretty much across the board.”
One might expect that a legal system thus rigged would greatly appeal to its prosecutors. Until now, one would be wrong. Half a dozen prosecutors have quit the commissions in disgust, most with blistering criticisms on their way out. Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor of the commissions until October 2007, said that constant political pressure made full, fair, and open trials impossible: “What we are doing at Guantánamo is neither military nor justice.”
No less scathing is Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, formerly lead prosecutor in another commissions case against a child soldier—a case that collapsed midway through, with the government dropping all charges. “It would be foolish to expect anything to come out of Guantánamo except decades of failure. There will be no justice there, and Obama has proved to be an almost unmitigated disaster,” he told me. After resigning from the commissions as a matter of ethical principle, Vandeveld was punished with a mandatory psychiatric evaluation and gratuitous hearings into his fitness for remaining in the Army, even though he had only four months remaining in his term of service. Vandeveld, who has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, doubts very much that any more prosecutors will resign after his highly visible reprimand.
The new head of the prosecution team, Capt. John Murphy, told me proudly that morale has never been higher on his team. Half of the four lawyers looked young enough to have started law school long after 2001, and it is hard to imagine young attorneys quitting the commissions without established careers to fall back on.
This may spell the end to a golden chapter in JAG history: throughout the sordid drama of Guantanamo, the few glimmers of governmental integrity have come from the JAG corps’ dissent. They even earned that ultimate ethical accolade, the disapproval of John Yoo, who scolded the military lawyers for adhering to the rule of law in defiance of the “unitary executive authority” as embodied by torture buffs such as himself.
For its part, Team Obama’s main innovation has been to ban troublesome journalists from the base, a move Bush never dared. On May 6, toward the end of this round of hearings, the Joint Task Force abruptly barred four of the most knowledgeable reporters from returning to Gitmo, accusing them of violating an order that the identity of Omar Khadr’s primary interrogator be kept secret. It doesn’t matter that “Interrogator Number One,” convicted in a 2005 court martial for prisoner abuse at Bagram prison, had already been interviewed by one of these journalists two years ago and that his identity is available in the public record.
One of the banned journalists, Carol Rosenberg of McClatchy, was hounded last summer by a risible and quickly dismissed sexual harassment complaint made by Navy press officer Jeffrey Gordon. Rosenberg is the acknowledged dean of Gitmo journalists. Getting rid of her would be a singularly effective way for the Department of Defense to gain some control over Gitmo’s public image.
And that image remains pretty terrible, even if Camp X-Ray, the open-air cages that held orange jumpsuited detainees for four months in 2002, is now growing weeds. Camp Delta, the detention complex, is rather prosaic. Camp 5, for the least compliant prisoners, is a direct modular copy of a block from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana; Camps 4 and 6, for the most compliant, of Lawanee Prison in Adrian, Michigan. Some detainees are able to take courses in Arabic, English, and art. And so what?
A prison doesn’t have to be an unremitting nightmare to threaten the rule of law. As the ACLU’s Ben Wizner puts it, “At this point, Guantánamo isn’t a place anymore, it’s a principle.” A normal-looking prison that just happens to hold people indefinitely without charge is a more insidious threat to the integrity of the legal system than Camp X-Ray ever was. For this reason, the ACLU does not see transporting the system to Thomson Correctional Facility in Illinois as any kind of progress.
Guantanamo, wherever it is located, runs the grave risk of normalization, a process already well underway. Over a few nights during the Khadr hearings, I read in my air-conditioned tent a law-review article by Prof. Adrian Vermeule, an up-and-comer at Harvard Law School. He proposes that legal black holes—the term was coined by a British law lord expressly for Guantánamo—are not only tolerable but necessary. Any attempt to fill them in with law would be “hopelessly utopian,” “quixotic” even. “Our Schmittian Administrative Law,” published last year in the Harvard Law Review, draws heavily on the work of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, lifelong opponent of the rule of law and liberal democracy. A chronic figure of fascination among lefty academics for the cold eye he cast on liberalism’s sacred myths, Schmitt’s ideas had always been held at a prophylactic distance.
No longer. Schmitt’s ready-made conceptual lexicon for political emergencies, non-state combatants, and the need for strident executive authority has proven irresistible to ambitious intellectuals in the revolving door between the federal government and the finer law schools. These tweedy immoralists urge us to relax our square-john commitment to the rule of law and embrace strong executive action. Surely the moralizing banalities of rule-of-law theorists are inadequate for the unique challenges of the post-9/11 global order, they tell us.
But after the events of the past decade, one would be on safer ground drawing the opposite conclusion about the rule of law’s value. Our government responded to 9/11 with extraordinary measures contemptuous of ordinary legality, and nearly every one of them has been catastrophic. From the conquest of Iraq to waterboarding to warrantless wiretapping to the military commissions of Guantánamo, these policies have been exorbitantly costly in blood, treasure, and national prestige. Nor is setting up a shambolic court to try a child soldier who was tortured in custody likely to solve anything. Has any part of our frenzied rejection of legal restraints improved national security?
Vermeule is correct to note that these black holes are likely to dilate rather than contract as an imperialist foreign policy strains our legal system, not only with the panic and fervor of war but with juridical conundrums of extraterritoriality, non-state belligerents, and geographically far-fetched definitions of self-defense. Already a new Guantánamo for indefinite detainees has opened up in Bagram, which will be much less accessible to media, nonprofit observers, and defense counsel.
Meanwhile, the rule of law will continue to suffer rough treatment at the hands of our best and brightest. The concept has been debunked by many postmodern academics as so much high-minded bourgeois blather and, more dangerously, derided by the neoconservative Right as a folktale for chuckleheads. But people in countries where violent lawlessness is rife see the rule of law as something more than rhetorical window dressing. From Colombia to Egypt to Italy to Guantánamo’s neighboring Cuba, citizens who risk their lives against the depredations of organized crime or authoritarian states routinely invoke the rule of law to give meaning to their acts of resistance. Yes, the rule of law may be an ideal—but it is not only an ideal.
Repairing legal black holes in America may start by shutting down Guantánamo, wherever the detention complex ultimately winds up, and radically rethinking our post-9/11 security policies. Indefinite detention in some nondescript prison with a few art classes doesn’t make for splashy headlines, but it marks the beginning of the end of the rule of law.
Chase Madar is a lawyer in New York.
The University of East Anglia’s enquiry into the conduct of its own staff at its Climatic Research Unit has highlighted criticisms of the department and staff conduct – but clears the path for the individuals concerned to carry on.
The CRU played an important role in writing the UN’s IPCC summaries on climate science, so the issue is far from a parochial one. The most serious charge is poor communication; Sir Muir Russell even calls for “a concerted and sustained campaign to win hearts and minds” to restore confidence in the team’s work.
Russell was appointed by the institution to investigate an archive of source code and emails that leaked onto the internet last November. The source code is not addressed at all. His report suggests that the problems were of the academics’ own making, stating that they were “united in defence against criticism”. Yet the enquiry found that despite emails promising to “redefine” the peer review publication process, and put pressure on journal editors, staff were not guilty of subverting the IPCC process, and their “rigour” and “honesty” were beyond question.
Leading academics were called for written and oral evidence before the Russell enquiry, and in many cases the report accepts their account of events. The subjects of their criticism were not invited, not were climate scientists critical of their behaviour. For example, in their capacity as IPCC gatekeepers, the academics are cleared of excluding critical evidence, and yet bending the rules to include supporting studies. To reach this particular conclusion, for example, the report finds a criterion: a “consistence of view” with earlier work. The earlier work here was in fact produced the academics under scrutiny. So, having compared the CRU academics’ work against their previous work, and found it to be consistent, they are cleared of malpractice.
Despite the gentlemanly and clubbable tone, the report nevertheless has deep systemic criticism of the institution and the team’s processes. UEA “fell badly short of its scientific and public obligations”, according to one review panel member, Lancet editor Richard Horton.
It criticises the team’s decision to curtail a temperature reconstruction at 1960, and splice on an instrumental temperature record, without explanation, noting:
“The figure supplied for the WMO Report was misleading in not describing that one of the series was truncated post 1960 for the figure, and in not being clear on the fact that proxy and instrumental data were spliced together. We do not find that it is misleading to curtail reconstructions at some point per se, or to splice data.”
There’s a selective approach to criticism of scientific techniques – officially, Muir Russell says it doesn’t examine the validity of scientific arguments. But as you can see, in places, it does. On the issue of the Yamal reconstruction, CRU is cleared but the related issues of basing the reconstruction on a limited sample of proxies, and using techniques which exaggerate and validate outliers (basically, one tree) is not addressed.
On compliance with Freedom of Information requests, the inquiry found the CRU team evasive, and “found a tendency to answer the wrong question or to give a partial answer”. They also found “a clear incitement to delete e-mails, although we have seen no evidence of any attempt to delete information in respect of a request already made”. (Jones had told a US academic that “I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone” and requesting deletions from other staff.)
The defensiveness “set the stage”, says Russell, for the barrage of FOIA requests last year, but “clear and early action would likely have prevented much subsequent grief”. It adds that “CRU helped create the conditions for this campaign by being unhelpful in its earlier responses”.
The institution itself had failed to anticipate the new FOIA regime, and let the academics run amok. Strangely it calls for “a concerted and sustained campaign to win hearts and minds” to restore confidence.
On information handling, the report “highlighted significant problems in the areas of: imbalance of authority; lack of effective challenge at appeal; over dependence on single individuals; inadequate escalation processes and limited strategic oversight.”
The panel avoided examining the scientific work of the CRU Team – as have the two other reviews of the leaked archive by Lord Oxburgh, and the Commons Select Committee on science. If the academics had used bats’ wings or tea leaves to create temperature reconstructions, that wasn’t a matter for any of the panels to judge. And this is undoubtedly a shortcoming. The voter is entitled to see the evidence and understand the arguments that may answer the question: “Is this climate thing anything to worry about?”
It’s worth taking a step back from the details of Climategate to understand the background to the enquiries. By understanding what the CRU academics do, we can judge how important the criticism of them may be – or not.
What did the CRU crew do?
The Climatic Research Unit is one part of the picture, an important one, but not at the heart of climate theory. They’re not physicists, and they don’t do the physics upon which competing explanations of how the climate works stand or fall, once measured against observation. So in that sense, ‘Climategate’ isn’t a ‘Climategate’ – it isn’t a Scopes Trial of the global warming theory.
But CRU does two important things that shape our understanding of the present and the past. CRU is one of a small number of bodies that calculates global temperature readings (of where we are today), and is probably the pre-eminent body that performs historical temperature reconstructions, quite literally writing or re-writing history. And its importance is magnified since the leading academics are also lead authors of the UN’s IPCC reports – the vast volumes policy makers like to cite as their scientific justification, but rarely read.
In the absence of a strong physics story, this temperature work became hotly contested. The biggest bone of contention is whether modern, post-1850 warming is anomalous. If it is, then the likelihood that we were in strange and uncharted territory is much greater. If it isn’t, then consequently, the need for “urgent political action” – involving sweeping changes to industrial policy and social policy – became weaker.
The father of modern climatology, HH Lamb, founded CRU in 1972, and the building the academics work in takes his name. When Lamb contributed to the first IPCC report in 1990 the historical temperature record looked like this.
By 2001, it looked like this.
What Climategate is largely about, then, is whether the academics were justified in making that Medieval Warm Period disappear.
Unfortunately, none of the three ‘independent’ reviews have grappled with this. The absence of anomalous warming doesn’t, as some skeptics say, make the problem go away. But it takes the issue back onto the blackboard, back into realms of the potential threats. It certainly removes much of the impetus for a sweeping and urgent political program of mitigation.
Yet in the academics’ own words, we learn that the recent burst of warming, while real, is far from unusual.
One of the leading CRU academics, Keith Briffa, wrote that:
“I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards ‘apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data’ but in reality the situation is not quite so simple. We don’t have a lot of proxies that come right up to date and those that do (at least a significant number of tree proxies ) some unexpected changes in response that do not match the recent warming. I do not think it wise that this issue be ignored in the chapter…
“For the record, I do believe that the proxy data do show unusually warm conditions in recent decades. I am not sure that this unusual warming is so clear in the summer responsive data. I believe that the recent warmth was probably matched about 1000 years ago.”
In an interview in February, CRU director Phil Jones agrees that recent warming isn’t statistically significant, and is matched by previous periods in the instrumental record – such as 1860 to 1880.
The sensible end of the climate debate hinges on how much of a lasting consequence an increase in CO2 has on the climate system. Some prominent scientists who as recently as 2001 were lead authors for the IPCC don’t dispute there’s an effect, but maintain that once it’s worked itself out, the effect is small.
Proponents of large positive CO2 feedbacks have pointed to various ‘fingerprints’ which are absent, or refuse to manifest themselves. Greenhouse gas warming was supposed to create a telltale warming of the troposphere, but instrumental readings show no such evidence. More recently, they have posited that CO2 must have caused warming, but this is still trapped in the oceans. This “missing heat” has yet to be found, and in the Climategate archive we find US scientist Kevin Trenberth expressing frustration: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t,” adding that “we can’t definitively explain why surface temperatures have gone down in the last few years. That’s a travesty!”
For Trenberth, if we had better instruments, we’d find the heat. For skeptics, the heat might not be there.
By the mid-2000s the issue had become so politicised the academics were acting like a “priesthood”, in the words of environmental writer Fred Pearce, no friend of the skeptics. As Jones wrote in an email: “Many of us in the paleo field get requests from skeptics (mainly a guy called Steve McIntyre in Canada) asking us for series. Mike and I are not sending anything, partly because we don’t have some of the series he wants, also partly as we’ve got the data through contacts like you, but mostly because he’ll distort and misuse them.”
In a sense the CRU team are carrying the can for the physicists’ failure to do the science. ®
On the 7th of July 2005 London was hit by a series of explosions.
The police have, from the onset of their investigation, chosen to withold from the public almost every bit of evidence they claim to have and have provably lied about several aspects of the London Bombings. The mainstream news has wilfully spread false, unsubstantiated and unverifiable information, while choosing to completely ignore the numerous inconsistencies and discrepancies in the official story. The government has finally, after a year, presented us with their official narrative concerning the event. Within hours it was shown to contain numerous errors, a fact since admitted by the Home Secretary John Reid. They have continuously rejected calls for a full, independent public inquiry. Tony Blair himself described such an inquiry as a ludicrous diversion. What dont they want us to find out?
The United States has secretly given a “written guarantee” to Israel that obliges Washington to sell Israel nuclear fission materials, Israeli sources say.
The materials will be used to “produce electricity,” Israeli Army radio, which is an official Israeli news source, reported.
Washington has also vowed to “publicly announce” that Israel is a responsible entity and can “contain its capabilities.”
Former US President Jimmy Carter has said Israel has between 200 and 300 nuclear warheads. A former Israeli scientist at Israel’s Dimona nuclear site, Mordechai Vanunu, as well as aerial footage and decades of recurrent reporting have reaffirmed the possession.
The US has always supported Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” in line with which Tel Aviv would neither confirm nor deny having the firepower.
Israel sensed a breach in the partnership two months ago when Washington supported an Egyptian proposal to hold a regional conference in 2012 on a nuclear-free Middle East.
The White House, however, said on Wednesday that US President Barack Obama had vowed to shield Israel from being “singled out” at neither the Egyptian-proposed meeting nor a September gathering of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons is expected to be top on the agenda, Reuters reported.
“We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are leveled against us — against it, that Israel has unique security requirements,” Obama as well noted.
As is customary, the US asks for authorization of Costa Rica’s legislature before entry of any US warship and soldiers in Costa Rican waters. And as customary, the Costa Rica legislature grants its permission, as was the case on Friday.
The permission allows the entry of 46 US war ships and 7.000 Marines for the balance of the year (July 1 to December 31, 2010).
The permission granted by the Costa Rica legislature could include docking of the USS Freedom (pictured above) on Costa Rica’s shores. Opposition parties say the decade old agreement was to allow entry of US coast guard vessels and not war ships.
Costa Rica’s opposition, however, see it different, describing the permission as illegal and in violation of national sovereignty.
The main opponents to the granting of the authority is the Partido Acción Cuidadana (PAC), the Frente Amplio (FA) and the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC), arguing that the destructive force of the ships and manpower, that includes helicopters, is disproportianate to the threat caused by drug traffickers.
The 46 ships carry some 200 helicopters and war planes and includes the USS Freedom, combat submarines and a hospital ship.
Luis Fishman, head of the PUSC party and presidential candidate in the past elections, said the legislative approval was like handing over a “blank cheque”.
“We cannot support the illegal, we cannot allow our Constitution to be trampled”, said Fishman.
The PAC and the FA recalled that the bilateral agreement signed 10 years ago allowed the entry of coast guard vessels, but not war ships that have the capacity for military confrontations and war.
FA legislator José María Villalta questioned the conditions under which the permission was granted, since US personnel “will enjoy freedom of movement and the right to carry out the activities needed to fulfill their mission”.
The FA also urged consideration of the geopolitical situation in which naval forces will be allowed to enter a region considered by Washington as part of its sphere of influence.
The legislator recalled that the US applies in the region a “strategy of complete dominance”, which includes offensive actions such as the coup d’etat in Honduras and the installation of military bases in Colombia.
Opposition Deputies said they may take action, that could include an appeal with the Constitutional Court, against the decision of the Legislative Assembly since the permission for the ships, airships, helicopters and marines to enter the country violates the agreement reached a decade ago.
Dear Noam Chomsky,
By now, someone has probably forwarded David Ray Griffin’s letter on to you. But if not, see the link at bottom.
For what it’s worth, my own research supports Griffin on ALL points.
Having said this, I’m going to climb onto my high horse. I want you to know how disappointed I am in you. You have done something unworthy of yourself. You have buried your head in the sand on one of the crucial issues of our time.
Several years ago, when I first brought the evidence about 9/11 to your attention, you replied that the evidence needed to find its way into print in mainstream science or engineering journals. Later, after this happened, and I brought it to your attention, you responded by feigning ignorance. You said you were not qualified to evaluate the evidence.
Baloney. You copped out.
If a theologian like Griffin can examine the evidence (which today is much stronger) in a logical and rational manner, surely we should expect no less of the world’s leading linguistic scholar.
By the way, I am aware that, many years ago, competent individuals showed you the evidence about the JFK assassination. It was already strong, at that time. According to various reports, you responded in exactly the same manner. You whiffed. So, given this, your ducking on 9/11 is not so surprising.
I confess that for many years I was in denial myself about the Kennedy assassination. But I’ve learned that these two key issues go hand in hand. The crux of the problem is the national security state.
I wish I could say: I’m hopeful. But if a linguistic genius cannot decipher the writing on the wall, what chance is there for ordinary people?
Until and unless the peace movement joins forces with the 9/11 truth movement, we will never have the political clout to turn the tide, to borrow a line from one of your books.
Mark H. Gaffney
GAZA CITY – At precisely 12 noon on a Thursday afternoon, among the rolling sandy hills in southern Gaza, a controlled explosion destroys another round of white phosphorous shells left in Gaza following the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza.
Explosives experts from the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the United Nations Mine Action Team (UNMAT) are working together to eliminate the remainders of a deadly Israeli attack. The Israeli bombings from land, sea and air left behind large amounts of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in civilian areas.
In a precise, technical routine which takes into account all possible dangers to the MAG and UNMAT workers as well as Palestinian residents living in Gaza, the explosives experts are, detonation by detonation ridding Gaza of the remaining white phosphorous shells.
In order to deprive them of oxygen, shells are first sealed in plaster casts, then moved into large sand-filled containers, until their day of detonation.
Controlled detonations occur twice weekly, coordinated with the Hamas government and the Israeli army, whose war planes fly over the detonation site during the afternoon.
On the day of the seventh round of UXOs to be detonated, there are eight shells to destroy. Two are completely full and six are broken open but unexploded.
Inside each shell are 122 sponges soaked with the lethal chemical, designed to scatter far upon explosion.
“Some white phosphorous shells can be only liquid,” explains Mark Buswell, MAG’s technical director. “But the kind used in Gaza were sponges, more difficult to get rid of.”
The use of sponge-filled white phosphorous shells by Israel’s in its attack on Gaza 18 months back also meant that the probability of injuring civilians was greater.
The controlled detonations stop these shells harming civilians in the future and allow the lethal chemical weapon to burn off in containment pits in the ground, far enough away from the nearest houses to cause harm.
Twenty minutes after the first detonation, when the majority of the thick, white smoke has burned off and dissipated, MAG technicians prowl for stray sponges, move them to the pit, and re-ignite them together.
A solitary clump burns in five to ten minutes, although if covered by sand it can lie dormant for days, re-igniting with the poke of a child’s stick or kick of a shoe.
Jim Hill, a Canadian medic working with MAG in Gaza, explains their work. “We are here in case there are injuries from white phosphorous burns, smoke inhalation or unexpected detonations resulting in injuries.”
Hill and other medics accompany the team as it slowly safeguards sites where the rubble clearance has finally begun, well over a year after the destruction.
With over 4,000 houses completely destroyed and 16,000 houses partially or badly damaged, the risk of UXOs is huge.
Buswell says their work is only just beginning.
Israel’s 23-day-war on Gaza December-January 2008-2009 killed more than 1,500 Palestinians, and left more than 5,320 wounded. Among the casualties were those hit or affected by white phosphorous bombings.
“When white phosphorus lands on skin it burns deeply through muscle and into the bone, continuing to burn until deprived of oxygen,” says Amnesty International.
Dr. Nafez Abu Shaban, head of the Burns Unit in Al-Shifa Hospital of Gaza City, told the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) that he was seeing patients “who sustained severe burns due to which the muscles and body cells are completely destroyed.”
Among Israeli soldiers’ targets were homes, schools where thousands of Palestinians were taking refuge, UN buildings storing humanitarian aid, and hospitals. Over half of Gaza’s 27 hospitals and 44 medical centres were destroyed or damaged.
The Al-Quds hospital in Gaza City and the Al-Wafa Rehabilitation Centre east of Sheyjayee — housing over 50 patients, the majority invalid and dependent on life-support machinery — suffered multiple bombings, including direct white phosphorous hits.
Israeli officials first denied using white phosphorous but later admitted and justified its use as a smokescreen for soldiers.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says its use among a concentration of civilians is “simply prohibited”, and notes that white phosphorous can spread up to several hundred square metres, with the “potential to cause particularly horrific and painful injuries or slow painful death.”
Over a year after the Israeli war on Gaza, the risk of UXO poses as real a threat as the fresh bombings.
These UXOs may detonate even decades later, MAG notes. In rural areas farmers ploughing or workers scavenging stones and steel can inadvertently set the bombs off. The anti-tank mines used by Israeli soldiers to demolish houses, and several of which remain, pose a risk to workers removing rubble or to families returning to their homes to sift for belongings.
As of August 2009, the UN reported 12 people killed from UXO explosions, six of who were children. Twenty-three were reported injured, including four children.
In March 2010, UNMAT and MAG began to destroy the 343 UXOs collected so far, including white phosphorous shells.
Mark Buswell compared the threat of an explosion in Gaza to “an explosion which could damage a city centre area the size of the City of London (2.6 square kilometres)”.