IT is interesting to note that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) claims “as a rule, the IDF only employs weapons that have been determined lawful under international law, and in a manner which fully conforms with the laws of armed conflict.” Physical evidence of munitions like flechette shells is turning up in Gaza. As stated in an article recently published in The Guardian, B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, describes a flechette shell as “an anti-personnel weapon that is generally fired from a tank. The shell explodes in the air and releases thousands of metal darts 37.5mm in length, which disperse in a conical arch 300 meters long and 90 meters wide.”
Jane's Defence Weekly states: “The IDF is using a modified version of US-supplied M494 105mmAPERS-T rounds, acquired in the 1970s. Their wide “kill radius” renders flechettes particularly deadly. Their use in heavily populated areas contravenes two basic principles of the laws of war. The first is the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks, which means that forces cannot use weapons or mount attacks that do not or cannot distinguish between civilians and military objectives. The second is the requirement to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize harm to civilians when choosing method and means of attack.”
And although not outright banned by international law, B'Tselem contends “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.”
This is hardly the first time the IDF has used flechette shells in combat. The same human rights organisation attributed the death of nine Palestinians in Gaza from the munitions in 2001 and 2002 and it is alleged that they have been used also in Lebanon. Prior to this Israel has been found to have used artillery shells containing white phosphorous in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009 that caused scores of extensive burns resulting in deaths amongst the populace. Going by a report published by B'Tselem on January, 2011 titled 'Flechette Shells: an illegal weapon,' it is found that Israeli forces have used flechette shells against the Hezbollah and other militias in Lebanon.
Non-combatants have paid the price of such munitions. As pointed out by B'Tselem: “On 9 June 2001, IDF soldiers encamped at the Netzarim settlement fired several flechettes in response to Palestinian gunfire at the encampment. Three Palestinian women, who were living in a tent site in the Sheikh 'Ajalin neighbourhood near the settlement and were not involved in the firing at the army encampment, were killed by flachette darts; Hikmat 'Odeh Alla Salmi al-Malalheh, 17, Nasra Salem Hussein al-Malalheh, 65, and Salima 'Omer Ghanem al-Malalheh, 32. Another man and woman in the tent site were serious injured….On 30 December 2001, three minors were killed by flechettes that were fired near Beit Lahiya: Muhammad Ahmad Lubad, age 17; Muhammad 'Abd a-Rahman al-Madhun, age 15, and Ahmad Muhammad Banat, age 15.”
One could fill pages upon pages on the number of deaths and injured resulting from the use of flechette shells in the various “conflicts” where the IDF is purportedly defending the homeland against “aggression” by terrorist organisations. And it is not only an Israeli human rights group that is making noise. The findings of the Israeli organisation have been supported by international groups like the Human Rights Watch which issued a statement on 29 April 2003 categorically demanding that “Israel should stop using flechettes.” That the use of “such anti- personnel weapons in densely populated areas makes the risks of civilian casualties intolerably high under international law.”
It is very convenient for the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice to state that it would not intervene in the army's “choice of weapons because use of flechettes was not banned outright in international law.” While that may be true, the indiscriminate use of such weaponry is immoral against the populace of Gaza where the density ratio makes it impossible to distinguish between military targets and non-combatants. However, given the arguments put forth by rights groups and their response by Israeli government institutions, we may safely assume that the flechette shells will continue to be deployed in Gaza resulting in deaths and injury of a civilian populace that has no place to hide against the flechette.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.