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The Israeli poison gas attacks
A preliminary investigation

by James Brooks

• I. 'New' Israeli gas causes mass convulsions in the Gaza Strip
• II. Gas attacks continue despite protests
• III. Doctors ask, 'What am I treating?' - Nerve Gas?
• IV. Israel's chemical weapons capability
• V. Documenting the suffering of the Palestinian gas victims
• VI. Victims' symptoms point to a troubling diagnosis
• VII. Consistent with the diagnosis: Nerve gas
• VIII. Were the gas canisters designed to attract?
• IX. The decision to use banned gas weapons against civilians
• X. A grave breach of international law
• References

I. 'New' Israeli gas causes mass convulsions in the Gaza Strip

On February 12, 2001, just six days after the landslide election of Ariel Sharon, Israeli soldiers responded to a Palestinian rifle attack by shelling neighborhoods in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip with machinegun fire and tank shells, a barrage that lasted long into the night. The next morning would find an estimated 300 Palestinians newly homeless.(1)

It might have been just another day of occupation. But the Israeli army chose that afternoon to lob mysterious new gas canisters into the streets, courtyards, and houses of Khan Younis city and the Gharbi refugee camp.(2)

The people of Khan Younis are utterly familiar with teargas; their neighborhood had long been known as one of the most heavily teargassed areas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). But no one in Khan Younis recalled seeing these strange canisters before, or their seemingly harmless multicolored smoke.

At first the smoking gas had no effect. There was none of the instant irritation of the eyes and breathing passages caused by all forms of teargas. And the gas seemed to be odorless as well. "It's harmless - this gas is nothing!", yelled a few teenagers, taunting Israeli soldiers. "Throw more!" The soldiers complied.(3)

Poison gas canister at PCHR offices, Khan Younis, February, 
2001. Click for larger view. Photo copyright James Longley, 2002
Poison gas canister at PCHR offices, Khan Younis, February, 2001. Click for larger view. Photo copyright James Longley, 2002

After a few minutes, a fragrance emerged from the gas. "Like mint," several people said. One resident later recalled, "the smell was good. You want to breathe more. You feel good when you inhale it." A girl reported that "its taste was like sugar. The smell was sweet."(4)

"First..the smoke was white, then yellow, then black," a teenage victim later recalled. Another victim said that the smoke changed colors "like a rainbow." But mostly the smoke was black, and very sooty. When the gas canisters landed on homes, black smoke billowed so thickly that neighbors rushed to help, believing the houses had caught fire.(5)

Soon, however, people began to realize that the gas wasn't harmless after all. One man recalled: "..ten - fifteen minutes later I got severe stomach cramps. I felt that my stomach was being torn apart. And a burning sensation in my chest. I couldn't breathe." People began to vomit, and go into seizures and spasms, then collapse and lose consciousness.(6)

Forty people were admitted to Al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis "in an odd state of hysteria and nervous breakdown", suffering from "fainting and spasms." Sixteen of them had to be transferred to the intensive care unit. Doctors "reported the Israeli use of gas that appeared to cause convulsions."(7)

At the Gharbi refugee camp, also in Khan Younis, thirty-two people "were treated for serious injuries" following exposure to the gas. Dr. Salakh Shami at Al-Amal Hospital reported that the hospital received "about 130 patients suffering from gas inhalation from February 12."(8)

Bewildered medical personnel had "never seen anything..like the gas at Tufa." Victims were "jumping up and down, left and right..thrashing limbs around", suffering "with convulsions..a kind of hysteria. They were all shaking." Others were already unconscious. An hour or two later, they would come to. And the convulsions and the vomiting and disorientation and pain would return. And so it would go, for days or, for some, weeks to come.(9)

The following day, February 13, Israeli forces again lobbed the poison gas canisters into the neighborhoods of Khan Younis. Over forty new gas victims, "including a number of children..from 1 to 5 years-old", arrived at Al-Nasser Hospital and the hospital of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.(10)

The news began to trickle out that Israel might be using something new and dreadful. AFX News Limited reported that "Palestinian security services have accused the Israeli army of using nerve gas during a gunbattle yesterday..", and noted "the army has strongly denied the charges." The BBC wire picked up the Voice of Palestine's report that "specialists believe that this is an internationally banned nerve gas." Those who inhaled the gas, the report said, "suffered a nervous breakdown and vomited blood."(11)

The next day, the Deutsche Presse-Agentur news service reported that "Israel has been using a powerful type of tear gas against the Palestinians that causes convulsions and spasms," a quote attributed to Dr. Yasser Sheikh Ali at Al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis. "More than 80 Palestinians arriving at Nasser Hospital..reported that Israeli soldiers had used the white smoky gas, but Israel denied doing so."(12)

According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), on February 15, three more canisters of the poison gas were fired at houses in the Khan Younis camp, and "another 11 Palestinian civilians, mostly children, suffered from suffocation and spasms due to gas inhalation."(13) In the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, British journalist Graham Usher wrote that Khan Younis civilians were "incapacitated" by "a 'new' form of toxic gas."(14)

The same day, PA President Yasser Arafat publicly "accused Israel of using poison gas", reported CNN. The IDF issued another denial. Israeli Communications Minister Ben-Eliezer called the reports of gas casualties in Khan Younis "incorrect and false." Senior Palestinian Authority minister Nabil Shaath reportedly said that a sample of the gas would be sent to "an international center for analysis."(15)

During the following six weeks, the Israeli Defense Forces would continue to deploy this novel weapon against civilians. In all, at least eight separate attacks with the "new gas" are recorded in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. According to the Israeli government, the victims of these attacks were suffering from "anxiety."

II. Gas attacks continue despite protests

In November, 1999, Suha Arafat, the president's wife, caused an international sensation and embarrassed First Lady Hillary Clinton with public charges of Israeli use of "poison gas", apparently referring to the chronic and sometimes fatal overuse of teargas by Israeli soldiers. Poison gas is an understandably sensitive subject for Israeli Jews. Her comments triggered months of indignant Israeli comment and demands for retraction, and so incensed Israeli authorities that they were called a violation of the peace process.(16,17)

Fifteen months later, when President Arafat publicly alleged the use of "poison gas" after the initial attacks in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli response was strangely muted and terse; reports of a new poison gas were merely "incorrect and false", and the matter was dropped. It would appear Israeli authorities wished to avoid drawing attention to the new "poison gas" charges.

Just three days after Mr. Arafat's allegations, Israeli soldiers reportedly used the "new" poison gas again in Khan Younis. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), on the morning of February 18 Israeli forces positioned near the Neve Dekalim settlement fired artillery shells, bullets, and four poison gas canisters at Palestinian houses. Later that afternoon, more gas was fired at houses in the Khan Younis refugee camp, forcing Palestinians to flee their homes. PCHR reported that "41 Palestinian civilians, mostly children and women, suffered from suffocation and spasms."(18)

The PCHR stated that 238 Palestinians were affected by poison gas attacks between February 12 and February 20. Twenty-seven of the victims were still hospitalized as of the 22nd.(19)

On March 2, poison gas was used against civilians living in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh. Israeli soldiers reportedly fired "live and rubber-coated metal bullets at Palestinian civilians", as well as "canisters of a highly effective black gas similar to the one used in Khan Yunis three weeks ago."(20)

March 26, Israeli forces east of Gaza City used a gas that "left symptoms different from those of the..gas used first against Palestinian civilians in Khan Yunis starting from February 12, 2001..", reported PCHR. However, the symptoms and gas characteristics described were essentially similar to those reported from previous attacks, with the exception that the onset of abdominal pain was apparently delayed in the latest attack.(21)

Four days later, on March 30, five Palestinians were killed in bloody clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus. Medical professionals on the scene reported that Israeli soldiers also used the new poison gas against Palestinian demonstrators.(22)

The April 5 - 11 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly featured the story, Vale of Tears: Tear or Poison Gas?, by British journalist Jonathan Cook. It tells the story of an Israeli poison gas attack in the schoolyard of Al-Khader village, near Bethlehem.

A gas canister landed in the schoolyard next to thirteen year-old Sliman Salah, "enveloping him in a cloud of gas described by witnesses as an unfamiliar, yellow colour." The boy required large doses of anti-convulsants to control his seizures and regain consciousness. Transferred to a second hospital to be treated by a neurologist, Sliman was later released, only to be re-admitted the following day with the same symptoms, which "were finally brought under control five days after his exposure to the gas. But Salah's father says the boy is still suffering from stomach pains, vomiting, dizziness and breathing problems."(23)

"Salah is just one of a spate of such cases in the Bethlehem area in the past month", Cook wrote, noting that "Hussein Hospital has reported a rapid increase in untreatable patients since the first such case was admitted in late February." An attending pediatrician, who has practiced in the West Bank for fifteen years and treated "dozens of teargas cases", said, "I have seen nothing like this before."(24)

Cook related the Israeli Defense Forces' claim that it uses only standard CS teargas, and occasionally deploys inert smoke screens to protect its soldiers. The Israelis suggested that the gas victims were simply suffering from "anxiety."(25)

III. Doctors ask, 'What am I treating?' - Nerve Gas?

If the new Israeli weapon was a form of nerve gas, as a number of observers asserted or suggested at the time,(26,27) the Israeli claim might have been partially true; anxiety is one of the many symptoms of nerve gas poisoning.(28) However, as far as we know, no identifying chemical assay of the gas exists. It appears that the last official comment by the Palestinian Authority about the gas was Nabil Shaath's February 15 announcement that it would be independently analyzed.

Much work remains to be done. It may be that a few of the gas canisters can be found and tested. It is possible that test results exist, yet lie unpublished. The victims, and their doctors, need and deserve to know what poisoned them, and governments seem unwilling to help. But we do not need to know the poison's chemical identity to study its effects, or to consider the standing of these attacks under international law.

In some situations it has been possible to determine the use of nerve gas, even without definitive chemical analysis. For example, an investigative team dispatched by the United Nations Security Council encountered forty Iranian victims of an Iraqi chemical attack in 1984. The UN investigators "had time to examine" only six of the afflicted soldiers. They found that "the signs and symptoms..were quite different from those associated with the mustard-gas sample. The UN team concluded from them that the patients had been exposed to an anticholinesterase agent" - nerve gas.(29)

At the time, the UN researchers did not have a chemical assay, apparently made little or no use of biological analysis, and worked with only six victims. Despite these handicaps, the UN team was able to reach a strong conclusion about the type of poison used, largely because the anticholinesterase nerve agents produce a unique and striking pattern of symptoms. In the situation, any other diagnosis would very likely have been implausible. Another team of experts may reach similar conclusions after thoroughly reviewing the documented cases of the Palestinian gas victims.

Initially, there was some conjecture that the "new gas" used by the Israelis might be a highly concentrated mixture of different tear gases.(30) The overall record offers scant support for this idea. The smoking gas canisters emitted no odor when first opened, and the gas was non-irritating on contact. Unlike teargas, this gas took time to rob its victims of their breath, from one or two minutes to forty-five minutes, apparently depending upon the rate of inhalation. The gas does not appear to have been physically repellent in an open space. When a mint fragrance emerged, usually a few minutes after a canister opened, the gas was described by several victims as "pleasant" to breathe. Victims did not respond to the proven treatments for teargas inhalation.(31) Those who suffered and those who witnessed or treated the victims agreed: "This is like nothing we've ever seen before."(32)

IV. Israel's chemical weapons capability

Regardless of official pronouncements, the Israeli government has had a deep and abiding interest in the full range of chemical and biological warfare agents. It is well known that Israel has been developing chemical and biological weapons for decades at its Institute of Biological Research (IIBR) complex in Nes Ziona, near Tel Aviv. This facility has been involved in, among many other things, "an extensive effort to identify practical methods of synthesis for nerve gases (such as tabun, sarin, and VX) and other organophosphorus and fluorine compounds."(33)(34)

One of the IIBR's specialties is inventing novel delivery systems for chemical weapons. One example is a revolver with a range of 150 feet. On impact, a bullet from this weapon injects a needle impregnated with a deadly toxin. The whole affair is designed to penetrate just enough to deliver a fatal dose, and leave little or no trace of the needle.(35)

IIBR's expertise is also highly scalable. In the aftermath of a tragic 1992 air crash in Amsterdam, the large scale production of nerve gases at IIBR became very difficult to deny. An El Al 747 jumbo cargo jet, flying from New York to Tel Aviv, plowed into a 12-story Amsterdam apartment building, killing the four people on the plane and at least 43 people on the ground in an instant inferno. Teams in white hazmat suits, never identified or acknowledged by officials, descended on the scene and hauled away certain debris. The Dutch and Israeli governments assured the public that the plane had been carrying "perfume and gift articles", and "no dangerous material" was onboard.(36)

In time, a syndrome of debilitating and chronic health disorders beset at least 850 local survivors. They and their doctors suspected a connection to the El Al crash. In 1998, a Dutch newspaper partially leaked the flight manifest; 20,000 pounds of chemicals had been on the plane, including large amounts of three of the four ingredients needed to make sarin, a deadly nerve gas - enough, when properly mixed, to annihilate a major world city.(37)

Finally, El Al admitted the presence of the three chemicals. But the identity of one-third of the chemicals on the plane remains a secret to this day. A Dutch citizens group, OVB, literally dug deeper to learn more. They found that soil at the crash site was tainted with uranium, zirconium and lanthanum. Tests also found depleted uranium in the stool samples of local survivors, which, doctors said, corresponded well with the symptoms suffered in the post-crash health syndrome.(38)

Reviewing Israel's weapons of mass destruction capabilities, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies describes its chemical warfare component as an "active weapons program" with "production capability for mustard and nerve agents."(39)

Israel is a world leader in acetylcholine research, and hosts international symposia in the field. Nerves use acetylcholine to interact with muscles, and it is this vital function that nerve gases attack. Scientists at IIBR continue to research the effects of nerve gas agents. Some of their results are published.(40)(41)

It appears that Israel has had the ability to produce and weaponize a variety of banned chemical agents, including the full array of nerve gases, for many years, in much larger quantities than would have been required for last year's sporadic attacks on Palestinian civilians. Noted for its innovations in weaponry, Israel could certainly have produced the dispensing canisters used in these attacks. It is also clear that Israel had access to the raw materials needed to make nerve gases - they have been shipped directly to the IIBR from the United States.

V. Documenting the suffering of the Palestinian gas victims

Whether the new Hebrew-lettered canisters were the brainchild of Israel's own IIBR, or purchased from another source, the enormous suffering they caused remains the same. Reading about the days and weeks of suffering endured by the gas victims is a very disturbing experience. Yet, we can read it, because these crimes are well-documented.

In addition to the numerous press and human rights reports cited in Parts I and II above, convulsing poison gas victims in Khan Younis were filmed by American filmmaker James Longley, in footage that appears in Gaza Strip, a documentary that "pushes the viewer headlong into the tumult of the Israeli-occupied Gaza, examining the lives and views of ordinary Palestinians." (42) (see also the FreeSpeech Web video: Gaza Strip Interview with James Longley)

Longley was awarded the Student Academy Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for a short documentary set in Russia, "Portrait of Boy with Dog." During the beginning months of the second Intifada, he decided to go to the Gaza Strip to find out what was really going on there, and document it on film. Journalist Alison Wier encountered Longley in Gaza in January, 2001, a few days after he'd been shot at by Israeli soldiers. Undaunted, he had kept the camera rolling, and was able to show Wier his footage of the event.(43)(44)

Longley arrived in Khan Younis on February 13, the day after the initial attack, and immediately encountered children running past him, shirts over their mouths, saying, "The gas! The gas! They're shooting the gas!" This was puzzling; it is not the way battle-savvy Gaza kids usually respond to teargas.(45)

Later that day, he visited the wards of the Al-Nasser and Al-Amal Hospitals in Khan Younis. He recalls:

"..passing room after room, women, children, men. Some were vomiting. Some alternated between a coma-like state and violent convulsions, their entire bodies twisting and arching, members of their families struggling to hold them down on the beds. On and on, for days. One boy, who had inhaled a large amount of the gas in question, suffered in the hospital for an entire month with recurrent convulsions. It is difficult to describe the sensation of sitting in a room for hours and days with people suffering so terribly, and knowing that this was done by human beings."(46) Source Document (Acrobat format)

In addition to the shocking evidence he captured on film, Longley compiled a 43-page document of translated interviews with nineteen gas victims, and interviews with victims' relatives, ambulance drivers, and doctors on the scene in Khan Younis.

VI. Victims' symptoms point to a troubling diagnosis

Most victims of the "new" Israeli gas apparently began feeling ill roughly five to ten minutes after their initial exposure, though shorter and longer periods were reported. Their suffering rapidly mushroomed, until they went into convulsions and lost consciousness. Many victims were incapacitated with multiple, agonizing symptoms for several days. Some victims, including children, were afflicted for at least several weeks.

Taken altogether, the reported symptoms present a bewildering array of serious bodily malfunctions. For a clearer perspective, the eyewitness reports of the victims' suffering were arranged in three sections: 1) Early onset symptoms, 2) Main acute stage symptoms, and 3) Persistent, post-hospitalization symptoms. To review these accounts, and a table in which reported poison gas symptoms are compared to known nerve gas symptoms, see Symptoms.

For a more direct understanding of what the Palestinian gas victims endured, see the Web video, Gaza Strip: Interview with James Longley, which includes clips from the documentary, Gaza Strip.

What the gas victims recalled about the onset of their symptoms does not agree with the reports of witnesses and caregivers who were with them at the time. Typically, victims remembered starting to feel weak and sick, with bad headaches and/or severe stomach pains and vomiting, proceeding directly to loss of consciousness. "After that, I knew nothing until I woke up in the hospital." Some victims recall collapsing or being unable to stand before they passed out.

Hardly any of the victims seem to remember their extreme hyperactivity, which was graphically reported by ambulance drivers and other witnesses who were on the scene. Drivers spoke of people on the street jumping around, thrashing their limbs, out of control and uncontrollable, exhibiting violent spasms. They also noted that the victims seemed to be unaware of their actions and their surroundings, which may explain their failure to recall these early symptoms. One ambulance driver said, "If they had anything in their hand - a woman carrying her child might throw him down without realizing it. She'd just drop him and start clawing at herself from the gas." Many adults were required to restrain each victim, so violent were the spasmodic convulsions induced by the gas.(47)

These highly unusual symptoms are generally considered to be the cardinal early warning sign that a nerve gas attack is in progress: "In case of a terrorist attack, suspect the [nerve gas] diagnosis when multiple patients present with symptoms of cholinergic excess."(48) "Cholinergic excess" means excessive nervous system activity, manifested as tics, fasciculations, spasms, and convulsions.

Most victims reported regaining consciousness in the hospital, after hours or days in a "coma-like state", during which some also had periods of spasms and convulsions. Following their first awakening, the accounts of victims are generally in agreement with those of the doctors and relatives who cared for them.

At this point most of the victims were only beginning their trial. Some went on to suffer in the hospitals for several days or several weeks, depending on their exposure to the gas. The symptoms would cycle relentlessly between periods of convulsions and spasms, when patients had to be restrained by teams of people, and periods of burning pain and itching throughout the body, difficulty breathing, vomiting upon eating, weakness, cramps, tics, insomnia, fever, shaking, and worse. Then the seizures would return. The frequency of this nightmarish cycle may have varied with the severity of poisoning. An 18 year-old victim in his second week following the attack was still convulsing every five minutes, according to a relative caring for him at Al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis.(49)

Some victims--it's not clear how many--also suffered from dark brown or reddish splotches on the skin, on the face and other areas. They seem to have appeared on most victims on the second or third day following exposure. The skin patches were still apparent in some victims more than a month later. An eleven-year old girl who breathed the gas inside her home said, "where it used to hurt, now I have spots."(50)

Gradually the severity of the symptoms subsided. But the damage done by the gas was remarkably persistent, a fact that especially troubled the doctors who had to treat these victims without any information about the poison(s) involved. Patients would be discharged, only to return the next day with the same symptoms at nearly the same severity, requiring several more days' hospitalization before being released again. Six weeks later, some victims of the initial attacks in Khan Younis were still so ill that their doctors wanted to send them abroad for more specialized care. (51)


The Nerve Gases

The nerve gases that have been developed for warfare are known as "anticholinesterase agents." They belong to the organophosphate family of chemicals, which includes a number of common pesticides. Traditional pesticides are essentially insect nerve gases, and kill by disrupting enzymatic pathways in the insect nervous system.

In humans, nerve gases work by inhibiting the acetylcholinesterase enzyme (AChE), which enables the binding and breakdown of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is vital for brain function, and is used by nerve cells to stimulate the muscles.

When AChE is absent, acetylcholine accumulates, causing muscles throughout the body to "cramp up" in continual contraction. The constricting, suffocating sensation experienced by nerve gas victims (which can progress to actual suffocation and death) stems largely from the immobilization of the diaphragm, which makes it difficult or impossible for the victim to inflate the lungs. This is typically how nerve gas kills. (52)(53)

Severe nerve gas intoxication can destroy the body's reserves of AChE, which take a long time to restore to normal levels. The more severe the exposure, the longer it takes to replete the enzyme. Research suggests that some victims may never return to normal levels. Follow-up studies of the survivors of the 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo revealed subnormal AChE even a year later in some individuals.(54) This "irreversible binding" of acetylcholinesterase is the most likely explanation for the recurrent and persistent symptoms experienced by the Palestinian victims.(55)(56)

VII. Consistent with the diagnosis: Nerve gas

What can the suffering of the Palestinian gas victims tell us about the contents of the Israeli gas canisters? As described in Part III above, investigators can sometimes identify the class of a chemical weapon by studying the symptoms of its victims.

A direct comparison of the symptoms reported in these Israeli gas attacks with the symptoms of nerve gas poisoning reveals striking similarities. In fact, the only Palestinian symptom not found in reports of nerve gas exposure is the peculiar skin "blotching" that afflicted some of the Gaza victims. (see Symptoms)

The order in which the Palestinians' symptoms appeared was also very similar to the progression of nerve gas poisoning. The persistence of symptoms suffered by some Palestinian victims is characteristic of severe nerve gas exposure. The evidence strongly suggests a potent anticholinesterase effect (see sidebar, The Nerve Gases, for more information).

To our knowledge, there are no reports of fatalities resulting from the Israeli poison gas attacks of February and March, 2001. Although the public usually associates nerve gas with mass death, fatality rates in wartime nerve gas attacks have generally been less than five per cent, largely due to difficulties involved in delivering lethal levels of gas.(57) The tragedy of nerve gas is largely found in its survivors.

This "lack of lethality" drove the German war effort to develop more potent nerve agents, culminating in VX and VX gas (V-gas). The first organophosphate nerve gas, tabun, was acquired by the Nazis when a German chemist discovered it in 1936. It is the least potent of the known nerve gases. When inhaled, tabun is approximately 1/4 as lethal as sarin (GB), 1/8 as lethal as soman (GD), and 1/40 as lethal as VX.(58)

Iraq used tabun, usually accompanied by other nerve gases and/or mustard gas, in many battles of the Iraq-Iran War (targeting and intelligence services provided by the USA), and possibly against its Kurdish civilians.

Could one of these chemicals have been involved in these Israeli gas attacks? Certainly not the super-potent VX type. Unlike the other nerve gases, VX is environmentally persistent, continuing to contaminate the attack area for weeks afterward. This does not seem to have been a factor in the attacks in occupied Palestine.

Although the less potent soman and sarin gases break down quickly in the environment, they may be too powerful to deliver in reliably sub-lethal doses, which may have been the intent in these attacks. On the other hand, perhaps researchers at IIBR have been able to aerosolize minute amounts of sarin for broad dispersion of sub-lethal levels using a controlled-release design.

Of the known nerve gases, the most likely candidate may be tabun. Tabun degrades quickly in the environment and its reported symptoms are similar to those reported in these attacks. (59) It is also quite possible that a novel agent or a combination of agents was used. In any event, we would be justified in expecting to find one of the organophosphate compounds commonly called "nerve gas."

Pending further evidence or an admission of the facts by the Israeli government, nerve gas appears to be the best tentative answer to the question, What caused the symptoms suffered during and after the IDF poison gas attacks of February and March, 2001? It bears repeating that this gas was released into the homes, schoolyards, and streets of occupied Palestine, where the presence of civilian men, women, and children was known to those deploying it.

VIII. Were the gas canisters designed to attract?

Poison gas canister in Nasser Hospital ambulance station, 
 February 13, 2001. Click for larger view. Photo copyright James Longley, 2002
Poison gas canister in Nasser Hospital ambulance station, February 13, 2001. Click for larger view. Photo copyright James Longley, 2002

The hand-sized gas canisters lobbed (and fired?) by Israeli troops were unusual in several respects. In addition to their mysterious active ingredient(s), the canisters also appear to have featured staged release of colored smoke and a strangely attractive fragrance. This suggests something about the thoughts directing the design and construction of these unique weapons.

Witnesses commonly reported that the gas canisters would 'explode' on impact, to release a billowing cloud of what initially was white smoke - similar to teargas, except that it seemed to have no odor at all.

After a short period, perhaps two or three minutes, the smoke began to change colors, turning yellow, orange, "a rainbow", according to one man. And a mint fragrance emerged, with a sweet "taste", so good that several of the interviewed witnesses commented on its "pleasant smell." One man recalled, "..the smell was good. You want to breathe more. You feel good when you inhale it."

Teenagers who spent some time playing with the canisters seem to have been among the most severely afflicted victims. Witnesses commented that the canisters were very difficult to extinguish, "impossible" according to some.(60)

Nerve gases are typically odorless, or nearly so.(61) It is possible that a nerve agent began dispersing as soon as the canisters blew open, when teenagers were shouting, "This gas in nothing! Throw more!" Mint fragrance is not mentioned in the literature for known nerve gases. Unless the IIBR, or someone else, has discovered a new type of sweet-tasting mint-flavored nerve gas, it seems likely that mint fragrance and possibly other flavors or attractants were added to the Israeli gas canisters.

What was the purpose of this design? Why go to the trouble of producing smoke in a succession of colors? Why add (as we assume) an exceptionally attractive fragrance and taste to the poison gas? Was it all intended to give the canisters a less threatening aspect? Could there have been an effort to produce a "crowd-pleasing effect"--and so increase the toxic exposure, taking advantage of the delayed onset of symptoms?

IX. The decision to use banned gas weapons against civilians

Why would anyone decide to attack civilians with a nerve poison? What would be the purpose of using a universally banned weapon against innocents in their homes? These questions are unfathomable, yet the events they ask us to explain stare us in the face. Someone crossed the line from the despicable practice of making such weapons to the criminally inhuman decision to use them.

Who was ultimately responsible? The first attacks, in Khan Younis, occurred while the newly-elected Sharon government was still being formed. But the attacks continued in Gaza and the West Bank until the end of March, 2001, well after Ariel Sharon had officially assumed the helm.

How many years had some souls inside the IIBR been yearning to test their life's work in the real world? Perhaps selected neighborhoods in Palestine could become laboratories for live experiments in advanced chemical weaponry. Areas like Khan Younis might be ideal. At the time of the attacks, Khan Younis was under strict Israeli blockade and had been teargassed so heavily and so often that its gas stories no longer elicited interest.

There must have been some concern to avoid detection. Taken as a whole, the reports of the attacks present an apparent pattern. Very heavy and sustained barrages of conventional weaponry (two or more hours) typically preceded the launch of the gas attacks. This could have been an attempt to scare off witnesses, including newspeople, as well as an effort to create the deniability of chaos. Although these preceding barrages drove people into their homes, closed windows and doors offered very little protection from the gas.

X. A grave breach of international law

Although this article and its supporting documentation are only an initial survey of the open-source information about this incident, two very troubling facts seem to be established: Hundreds of Palestinian civilians were poisoned by an unknown agent released from canisters launched by the Israeli Defense Forces, and the devastating effects of these attacks were very similar to the effects produced by common nerve gases.

The international community has a moral and statutory obligation to fully investigate these attacks to determine, to the best of current ability, what poison or poisons were used, to investigate the condition of the survivors and assist in providing the care they need, and to bring to justice under international law those who ordered the unconscionable use of universally banned weapons against innocent Palestinian civilians.

According to Article 147 of of the Fourth Geneva Convention, "wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment" of civilians, "including biological experiments" and wilfully causing them "great suffering or serious injury to body or health" are grave breaches of the law, the most serious category of war crime. There appears to be prima facie evidence that "great suffering" and "serious injury to body and health" were "willfully" inflicted on Palestinian civilians during these gas attacks.(62)

This serious offense appears to be compounded by the use of toxic gases as weapons, a blatant violation of several international conventions intended to protect civilians and soldiers from the scourge of chemical warfare, including the Geneva Protocol of 1925 for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC), and the 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (CWC).

Therefore, there are strong and compelling reasons to investigate each of the February and March, 2001, Israeli poison gas attacks as a possible grave breach of international law.

Article 146 of the Convention states that all High Contracting Parties to the Convention are required to “search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches", and must "bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before their own courts.”(63)(64)

~ ~ ~

"Distinct from their ability to cause physical injury and illness, biological or chemical agents are amenable to the waging of psychological warfare because of the horror and dread that they can inspire." - World Health Organization (65)

 

James Brooks of Worcester, Vermont, is volunteer webmaster for Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel and publishes VTJP's free daily e-mail digest of Middle East news and commentary. To subscribe, contact jamiedb@attglobal.net

   
         
    References    
   

(1) Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) Weekly Report on Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, February 8 - 14, 2001, http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/W_report/English/15-02-2001.htm - Return to text

(2) Ibid. - Return to text

(3) Selected Interviews recorded for the documentary film Gaza Strip by James Longley, transcripts: Regarding the use of an unidentified gas by the Israeli Defense Forces During the week of February 12, 2001, In the Khan Younis Refugee Camp http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(4) Ibid. - Return to text

(5) Ibid. - Return to text

(6) Ibid. - Return to text

(7) Israelis Kill 14-year-old, Assassinate Arafat Bodyguard February 13, 2001 Palestine, IANA Radionet, Islamic Assembly of North America http://www.ianaradionet.com/E_newstext/2001/Feb/2-13ME.htm - Return to text

(8) Gaza Archives: Feature Israeli Army Fires Highly Toxic Quantities of Tear Gas at Civilians in Khan Yunis, Gaza Palestine Monitor, February 15, 2001 http://www.palestinemonitor.org/eyewitness/Gaza/Israeli_army_fires_tear.htm - Return to text

(9) Selected Interviews Gaza Strip by James Longley http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(10) PCHR Weekly Report, Feb. 8 - 14, 2001, http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/W_report/English/15-02-2001.htm - Return to text

(11) Selected Interviews Gaza Strip by James Longley http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(12) Ibid. - Return to text

(13) Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) Weekly Report on Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, February 15 - 21, 2001, http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/W_report/English/22-02-2001.htm - Return to text

(14) Unprepared for the worst, by Graham Usher, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Feb. 15 - 21, 2001, Issue No. 521 http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/2001/521/re1.htm - Return to text

(15) CNN Asia: Arafat accuses Israel of using poison gas, February 16, 2001 http://asia.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/meast/02/15/arafat.gas - Return to text

(16) Hillary Clinton criticises Mrs Arafat, November 12, 1999, BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/517983.stm - Return to text

(17) Still no apology from Suha Arafat, Jerusalem Post, November 17, 1999 http://www.jpost.com/com/Archive/17.Nov.1999/LatestNews/lnews-2.html - Return to text

(18) PCHR Weekly Report, Feb. 15 - 21, 2001, http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/W_report/English/22-02-2001.htm - Return to text

(19) Ibid. - Return to text

(20) Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) Weekly Report on Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, March 1 - 7, 2001 (report contains typographical error incorrectly listing incident as occurring "Friday, February 22") http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/W_report/English/07-03-2001.htm - Return to text

(21) Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) Weekly Report on Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, March 22 - 29, 2001, http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/W_report/English/29-03-2001.htm - Return to text

(22) Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) Weekly Report on Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, March 29 - April 4, 2001, http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/W_report/English/05-04-2001.htm - Return to text

(23) Vale of tears: Tear or poison gas? By Jonathan Cook, Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, 5 - 11 April 2001, Issue No.528 http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/2001/528/re3.htm - Return to text

(24) Ibid. - Return to text

(25) Ibid. - Return to text

(26) Selected Interviews Gaza Strip by James Longley http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(27) Israelis Kill 14-year-old, Assassinate Arafat Bodyguard February 13, 2001 Palestine, IANA Radionet, Islamic Assembly of North America http://www.ianaradionet.com/E_newstext/2001/Feb/2-13ME.htm - Return to text

(28) Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons: Annex 3: Chemical Agents, World Health Organization http://www.who.int/emc/pdfs/DraftAnnex3WS.pdf  - Return to text

(29) Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Fact Sheet, Chemical Weapons I, May 1984, Julian Perry Robinson and Jozef Goldblat http://projects.sipri.se/cbw/research/factsheet-1984.html - Return to text

(30) Vale of tears: Tear or poison gas?, Jonathan Cook, Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, 5 - 11 April 2001, Issue No.528 http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/2001/528/re3.htm - Return to text

(31) Selected Interviews Gaza Strip by James Longley http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(32) Ibid. - Return to text

(33) Avner Cohen, "Israel and Chemical/Biological Weapons: History, Deterrence, and Arms Control," The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Fall-Winter), pp. 27-53. http://www.puaf.umd.edu/CISSM/Scholars/Cohen.pdf - Return to text

(34) The Link, Vol. 34, Issue 1, American Middle East Update
http://www.ameu.org/uploads/vol34_issue1_2001.pdf - Return to text

(35) Ibid. - Return to text

(36) Israel fails to calm Dutch anger over 'nerve gas' crash, The Independent, 4 October, 1998 http://www.sit.wisc.edu/~time/articles/nurveIsreal.htm - Return to text

(37) The Link, Vol. 34, Issue 1, American Middle East Update
http://www.ameu.org/uploads/vol34_issue1_2001.pdf - Return to text

(38) Ibid. - Return to text

(39) Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East: Weapons of Mass Destruction Capabilities and Programs, Center for Nonproliferation Studies http://cns.miis.edu/research/wmdme/israel.htm - Return to text

(40) Comparative Structural Studies on Conjugates of Torpedo Californica and Human Acetylcholinesterases with Organophosphate Nerve Agents, J.L. Sussman1, C.B. Millard, G. Koellner, G. Kryger, M. Harel, H. Greenblatt, H. Dvir1, P. Bar-On, V. Neduva, K. Giles, A Ordentlich, Y Segall, N Ariel, D Barak, B Velan, A Shafferman, L Toker, I Silman Depts of Structural Biology1 and Neurobiology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot Israel Institute for Biological Research, Ness Ziona, Israel, 2002 International Symposium on Cholinergic Mechanisms - Functions and Dysfunction & 2nd Misrahi Symposium on Neurobiology http://www.kenes.com/cholinergic/abstracts/150.doc - Return to text

(41) Scavenger Protection Against Organophosphates by Cholinesterases, B.P. Doctor1, A. Saxena1, M.T. Clark, Y. Rosenburg, D.M. Maxwell, D.E. Lenz, Y. Ashani Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, MD, USA, Procell, Rockville, MD, USA, Department of Biochemistry and Pharmacology, USAMRICD, Edgewood, MD, USA, IIBR, Ness-Ziona, Israel 2002 International Symposium on Cholinergic Mechanisms - Functions and Dysfunction & 2nd Misrahi Symposium on Neurobiology http://www.kenes.com/cholinergic/abstracts/235.doc - Return to text

(42) Press kit for documentary Gaza Strip http://www.littleredbutton.com/presskit/gaza_strip.doc- Return to text

(43) Gaza Calling, by Alison Wier, Media Monitors Network, February 19, 2001 http://www.mediamonitors.net/weir1.html - Return to text

(44) Free Speech Video: Interview: Filmaker James Longley and Gaza Strip, Web video http://www.freespeech.org/fsitv/ramfiles/eyes_palestine_longly.ram - Return to text

(45) Selected Interviews Gaza Strip by James Longley http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(46) Ibid. - Return to text

(47) Selected Interviews Gaza Strip by James Longley http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(48) eMedicine Journal, January 11 2002, Volume 3, Number 1 http://emedicine.com/emerg/topic899.htm - Return to text

(49) Selected Interviews Gaza Strip by James Longley http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(50) Ibid. - Return to text

(51) Ibid. - Return to text

(52) Testimony of Dr. Christine M. Gosden Before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Chemical and Biological Weapons Threats to America: Are We Prepared?, Wednesday, April 22, 1998 http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1998_hr/s980422-cg.htm - Return to text

(53) Chemical and Biological Warfare, ThinkQuest, Inc. http://library.thinkquest.org/27393/dreamwvr/agents/tabun.htm - Return to text

(54) Chronic neurobehavioral effects of Tokyo subway sarin poisoning in relation to posttraumatic stress disorder, Kazuhito Yokoyama, Environmental Health, July-August, 1998 http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m0907/n4_v53/21017749/p1/article.jhtml - Return to text

(55) Testimony of Dr. Christine M. Gosden Before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Chemical and Biological Weapons Threats to America: Are We Prepared?, Wednesday, April 22, 1998 http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/1998_hr/s980422-cg.htm - Return to text

(56) eMedicine Journal, January 11 2002, Volume 3, Number 1 http://emedicine.com/emerg/topic899.htm - Return to text

(57) Chemical Warfare Experience In Iran/Iraq War, Federation of American Scientists http://www.fas.org/irp/gulf/intel/970129/123096_8061115_mic_0001.html - Return to text

(58) Ibid. - Return to text

(59) Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Fact Sheet, Chemical Weapons I, May 1984, Julian Perry Robinson and Jozef Goldblat http://projects.sipri.se/cbw/research/factsheet-1984.html - Return to text

(60) Selected Interviews Gaza Strip by James Longley http://www.littleredbutton.com/gas_interviews/interviews.pdf - Return to text

(61) Hazardous Substances Databank (HSDB), National Library of Medicine, TOXNET http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov - Return to text

(62) Geneva Convention/Fourth Geneva Convention, 5.1.6 Article 147, Wikisource http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Fourth_Geneva_Convention#Article_147 - Return to text

(63) Ibid. - Return to text

(64) Commentaries: Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977.
http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/b466ed681ddfcfd241256739003e6368/5e5142b6ba102b45c12563cd00434741
- Return to text

(65) Health Aspects of Biological and Chemical Weapons, World Health Organization http://www.who.int/emc/pdfs/BIOWEAPONS_FULL_TEXT2.pdf - Return to text

 

Additional references:

Report: Bloody Sunday - The Events of April 9, 1989, and Their Aftermath, Physicians for Human Rights, 1990, http://www.phrusa.org/research/chemical_weapons/chemgeorgia.html

A War of Words: The Israeli and Palestinian Media Coverage of the al-Aqsa Intifada, Chapter 3:  PALESTINIAN MEDIA, 
http://www.phrmg.org/monitor2001/nov2001-3.htm

PHR Condemns Use of Poison Gas on Kurds; Calls for Total Ban on Chemical Weapons: Testimony before the US Senate concerning the findings of the report Winds of Death: Iraq's Use of Poison Gas Against Its Kurdish Population
http://www.phrusa.org/research/chemical_weapons/chemiraqgas1.html

The Use of Chemical Weapons: Conducting an Investigation Using Survey Epidemiology, Howard Hu, MD, MPH, et al, Journal of the American Medical Association, August 4, 1989 - Vol. 262, No. 5
http://www.phrusa.org/research/chemical_weapons/chemjourn.html

Geneva Protocol Reservations: List of notes and reservations submitted by States Parties to the Geneva Protocol, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
http://projects.sipri.se/cbw/docs/cbw-hist-geneva-res.html

First Lady criticizes Mrs. Arafat's blood libels against Israel, Associated Press, November 12 1999
http://www.likud.nl/press03.html

Israel parties approach unlikely coalition, February 16, 2001
http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/meast/02/16/mideast.02/

UN confirms nerve gas reports, BBC online, June 24, 1998
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/119520.stm

"Nerve gas factory" claim exposed as hoax, World Socialist Web site, 26 August 1998
http://www.wsws.org/news/1998/aug1998/bomb-a26.shtml

Time magazine, April 3, 1995, Vol. 145, No. 14, PROPHET OF POISON: After Tokyo suffers a nerve-gas attack, suspicion focuses on the leader of an apocalyptic cult, BY DAVID VAN BIEMA
http://www.virtualschool.edu/mon/Outlaws/TimeTokyoSarinAttack.html

Israel airline admits crashed plane carried sarin gas chemicals, October 2, 1998, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
http://www.abc.net.au/news/98/10/02/981002_24.htm

Crashed El Al Cargo Jet Carried Nerve Gas, By Arnoud Vrolijk, Assistant Curator, Oriental Collections, Leiden University Library, The Netherlands, Islamic Resistance Support Association
http://www.moqawama.org/feauters/crash.htm

Chemical plane crash inquiry, BBC Online, January 27, 1999
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/263813.stm

Israel Has Nerve Gas, The Nationalist Times, American Nationalist Union, 1998
http://www.anu.org/news_israelhasnervegas.htm

Israel Wire: Marijuana Substitute Combats Nerve Gas, Media Awareness Project, June 5, 1998, Julian Borger, Scripps Howard News Service
http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v98/n417/a14.html

Temperature rises with death toll, by Charmaine Seitz, Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, February 14, 2001 - Vol 7 No 34
http://www.jmcc.org/media/report/01/Feb/3.htm

Bleeding The Gulf: The United Nations Sanctions on Iraq, by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Media Monitors Network, October 30, 2001
http://www.mediamonitors.net/mosaddeq17.html

Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Yellow Areas, Palestinian Centre for Human Rights
http://www.pchrgaza.org/files/S&r/English/study16/israeli.htm

Fort Bragg Web site, April 25, 2000, Protests of U.S. and U.K. Air Strikes, Feb 19
http://www.bragg.army.mil/sid/wwwthreat/CountriesGHI/iraq.htm

Palestine National Information Center, Alquds Intefada UPDATE February 13, 2001
http://www.pnic.gov.ps/arabic/quds/quds_eng_update137.html

Special Reports from Palestine, The Intifada: An Overview: The First Two Years, Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, 52 pages, December 1989
http://www.jmcc.org/research/special/intifada.html

State of Palestine, Ministry of Health, Health Information Center, June 23, 2001: Ministry Of Health Calls Upon The International Community To Save International Protection For The Palestinian People
http://www.moh3.com/update%5Cjune2002%5Cfile023.html

Original version published January 8, 2003: Media Monitors Network - Information Clearing House

   
       
   
James Brooks - jamiedb@attglobal.net