White Phosphorus


The effects of airburst WP munitions in urban environments

During and in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Gaza of December 2008–January 2009, known as “Operation Cast Lead,” news reports have repeatedly shown images of a hitherto little known type of weapon. These images displayed airborne explosions releasing tentacles of smoking fragments onto densely inhabited parts of the Gaza strip. Alongside other images of the large-scale destruction of buildings and infrastructure, representations of these airbursts were some of the defining images of “Cast Lead.” Research by several human rights organisations, based on military expertise, witness testimonies, projectile debris found on sites, and medical reports of burn injuries, confirmed that the Israeli military were using white phosphorus munitions.

Because of its incendiary and toxic effects, the use of white phosphorus in populated areas is highly controversial. According to many international legal experts and scholars, it constitutes an illegal act as it effectively acts like a chemical weapon. Israel initially denied the use of such munitions. When confronted with indisputable evidence to the contrary, the Israeli military changed its position and confirmed the use of white phosphorus, but claimed that it only used it “in compliance with international law.”

In March 2011, as part of a concerted civil society action, the Israeli human rights group Yesh Gvul, represented by attorneys Michael Sfard and Emily Schaeffer, submitted a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding the complete ban of the use of white phosphorus munitions in populated areas by the Israeli military. It was in this context that the office of Michael Sfard asked Forensic Architecture to investigate the behaviour and effects of such weapons. The outcome of our investigation was a report titled “The Use of White Phosphorus Munitions in Urban Environments: An Effects-Based Analysis.”

The report was first presented in the UN Office at Geneva, during the Annual Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (November 12–16, 2012). It was later submitted to Israel’s High Court of Justice, within the framework of Yesh Gvul’s petition. With the material in the petition generating a strong adverse public opinion, the Israeli military—prior to the final hearing of the case in the High Court—declared on April 25, 2013 that it would stop using white phosphorus munitions in populated areas.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (research and coordination)

SITU Research team

  • Bradley Samuels (Managing Partner)
  • Akshay Mehra (research)
  • Charles Perrault (research)

Collaborating organizations

  • Michael Sfard Law Office (Michael Sfard, Emily Schaeffer)
  • Human Rights Watch – Arms Division (Stephen Goose, Bonnie Docherty, Mary Wareham)
  • Chris Cobb-Smith (munitions expert & consultant)
White Phosphorus – video summary of the investigation


Among the variety of white phosphorus munitions that exist in military arsenals, this study focuses on the M825 WP projectile. In recent history, in addition to being used by the Israeli military in Gaza, it was also employed by the United States mili- tary in 2004 during operations in Fallujah, Iraq—another densely populated urban environment. At a pre-calculated height above its target, a charge at the front of the M825 WP shell is activated and the projectile separates into two parts releasing its contents: 116 felt wedges soaked in white phosphorus. Once released, the wedges fall to the ground in an elliptical pattern with a long axis of up to 200 meters. Immediately upon coming into contact with oxygen, white phosphorus begins to burn and produce a dense white smoke.

There are three distinct ways in which white phosphorus can cause harm to civilians. Direct contact with the felt wedges can cause severe injury, penetrating clothing and burning directly through skin and bone. The smoke is toxic and can cause severe irritation to the lungs if directly inhaled. But by far the most dan- gerous aspect of this projectile is its incendiary effect, as wedg- es become ignition sources that can start fires throughout the areas where they are deployed.

Our investigation focused on an Effects-Based Analysis of the M825 WP projectile as it interacts with a series of typical urban environments. The effects on urban environments are the result of the specific characteristics of the projectile itself, on the one hand, and the built environment impacted on the other. The methods employed to produce this report therefore combined ballistic simulation with spatial analysis and urban reconstruction. The report analyses the relation between the projectile and the built environment at both the urban scale and the architectural scale. The reconstruction of the behaviour of the projectile was implemented both in order to determine its coverage area, and to catalog the types of damage to objects and persons in a range of contexts.

In producing the report, Forensic Architecture consulted military manuals and sought expert testimony—particularly that of weapons expert Chris Cobb-Smith. However, a crucial source of information for this research was the visual material already available in the public domain: mainstream news media footage and reporters’ photographs documenting the firing of airburst white phosphorus over Fallujah and Gaza. With the help of 3D-modeling software, spatial data was extracted from the still and moving images in an effort to reconstruct both specific events and the general characteristics of the projectile. This data was ultimately integrated into a parametric model that simulated the burst of the M825 WP projectile over typical urban environments, allowing us to analyse its effects, and the resulting civilian damage that can be expected.


On November 12, 2012, in the frame of an advocacy event on Incendiary Weapons organized by Human Rights Watch during the Annual Meeting of State Parties to Convention on Con- ventional Weapons (CCW), Forensic Architecture was invited to present the report to the diplomatic delegates of State Parties to the CCW in the United Nations Office at Geneva.

Notwithstanding the vivid interest manifested by several delegates after the presentation, and in spite of a week-long lobbying process led by Human Rights Watch, no agreement was reached among State Parties with regard to re-opening Protocol III. Notable opposing States were Japan, Israel, and the United States. Given the current configuration of geopolitical power relations, the persistent opposition of such influential States means that it may be long before an amendment of Proto- col III becomes a realistic possibility.

On March 5, 2013, Forensic Architecture’s report was submitted to Israel’s High Court of Justice as a supporting doc- ument for the petition demanding the ban of the use of white phosphorus munitions in urban environments by the Israeli military. Its admission as evidence encountered strong objec- tions by the Israeli military/State Attorney, who questioned the competence of a team of architects to provide expertise on the military matters at stake in the case.

On April 25, 2013, while the question of the admissibility of the report was still being debated in court, the Israeli military issued a declaration stating that it would cease to use white phosphorus shells in populated areas—thereby yielding to the demand of the petition before the Court had to rule on it. The decision was taken “in the shadow of the court”—that is, as a consequence of a legal process but without a verdict—and, arguably, as a direct consequence of the Israeli military’s estima- tion that they could not win the case.

A senior military commander explained: “As we learned during Cast Lead, [white phosphorus] doesn’t photograph well, so we are reducing the supply and we will not purchase beyond what we already have.” Subsequently, the military informed the Court that it had ordered a “significant narrowing” of the use of these shells.”

For a more in-depth account of this project, see FORENSIS: The Architecture of Public Truth.



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