Dispatches From The Edge—Gaza: Death’s Laboratory

By Conn Hallinan
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:46:00 PM

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. 


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. While the weapon has been used in Iraq, Gaza was the first test of the bomb in a densely populated environment. 

The specific weapon—the GBU-39—is a Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) and was developed by the U.S. Air Force, Boeing Corporation, and University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2000. 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 60 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 limits the explosion.  

Within the weapon’s range, however, it is inordinately lethal. According to Norwegian doctor Mad Gilbert, the blast results in multiple amputations and “very severe fractures. The muscles are sort of split from the bones, hanging loose, and you also have quite severe burns.”  

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.  

If, by some miracle, victims do survive, they are almost to certain 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. 

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. And in Gaza, the ordinance was widely used. Al-Shifta alone has seen 100 to 150 such patients. 

Was Gaza a test of DIME in urban conditions?  

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.” 

The characteristics of the GBU-39 are likely to make it a go-to weapon in the future. The bomb is small and light—less than six feet long and only 285 pounds—that means an aircraft can carry four times as many weapons. It can also be dropped 60 miles from its target. Internal wings allow the bomb to navigate to its target. It can penetrate three feet of reinforced concrete. It can also be mounted on drones, like the Predator and the Reaper, and compared to other weapons systems, is a bargain.” 

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.” 

In fact, Congress approved the $77 million sale of 1.000 GBU-39s to Israel in September, 2008, and the weapons were delivered in December. Israel was the first foreign sales of the DIMES. 

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.” 

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. 

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.” 

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. 

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.” 

Israel is also accused of using depleted uranium ammunition (DUA), which in 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. 

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. 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. 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 number of them civilians. 

“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.” 

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. 

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.”