Flechette Shells: an illegal weapon

1 Jan 2011

The flechette shell is an anti-personnel weapon that is generally fired from a tank. The shell explodes in the air and releases thousands of metal darts 37.5 mm in length, which disperse in a conical arch three hundred meters long and about ninety meters wide.

The IDF uses flechette shells that are 105 mm in diameter and are fired from tanks.

The primary military advantage of the flechette over other munitions is its ability to penetrate dense vegetation very rapidly and to strike a relatively large number of enemy soldiers.

The IDF used flechettes in Lebanon against the Hizbullah and the other militias fighting against Israel. The flechettes killed and wounded dozens of Lebanese civilians who were not involved in the hostilities, including children.

Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada, the IDF has used flechettes against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

As of 2 February 2003, these shells have killed at least nine Palestinians:

  • On 3 March 2001, flechette darts killed Mustafa Rimlawi, a 42-year old mentally handicapped resident of the al-Burej refugee camp, as he was wandering along the Karni-Netzarim road in the Gaza Strip.

  • On 9 March 2001, Zaid 'Ayad, a resident of the Gaza Strip, was shot on the same road (the circumstances of his death are disputed).

  • On 9 June 2001, IDF soldiers encamped at the Nezarim 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 neighborhood near the settlement and were not involved in the firing at the army encampment, were killed by flechette 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 seriously injured. The Judge Advocate General announced the appointment of an Investigative Officer to examine the circumstances of the deaths of the three women.

  • On 30 December 2001, three minors were killed by flechettes that where fired near Beit Lahiya: Muhammad Ahmad Lubad, age 17; Muhammad 'Abd a-Rahman al-Madhun, age 15; and Ahmad Muhammad Banat, age 15.

  • On 26 December 2002, 'Isam Muhammad a-Susi, age 21, from Gaza City, was killed by by flechettes fired by the IDF while he and some other Palestinians tried to enter the settlement of Nezarim in The Gaza Strip.

B'Tselem has also gathered evidence of the use of flechette shells in two other incidents in which six Palestinians were killed and nine wounded, although it cannot be definitively ascertained whether the injuries resulted directly from the use of flechettes.

On 28 August 2002, the al-Hajin family was sleeping under a fig tree on their plot of land in the a-Sheikh 'Ajalin Neighborhood in Gaza when shells were fired on them from the a-Taba hill which is at the border of the safety-zone around the Netzarim settlement. Ruweida al-Hajin, age 42, Ashraf al-Hajin, age 23, Nihad al-Hajin, age 19, and Muhammad al-Hajin, age 18, were killed, and five others, including children, were injured in this incident.

On 18 February 2002, IDF soldiers identified two armed Palestinians in the area of the greenhouses of the Morag settlement in the southern Gaza Strip. The soldiers fired intensively at the Palestinians and towards an area some 200 meters north of the settlement's greenhouses. In this area called Kizan a-Nijar, Palestinian families live in tin shacks. Among the shacks fired upon was that of the al-Bahabsa family. Miryam Ouda al-Bahabsa, age 37, and Mona al-Bahabsa, age 14, were killed, and Aida al-Bahabsa, age 16, Sabrin al-Bahabsa, age 18, Muhammad al-Bahabsa, age 11, and Ramdan al-Bahabsa, age 4, were injured. At the site of the incident, B'Tselem's fieldworker found a large number of small darts of the type found in flechette shells, suggesting that the IDF fired flechette shells at the shack.

Official Israeli sources justify the use of flechette shells. The IDF Spokesperson claims that the use of this weapon is permitted under international law and that "the use of various types of weapons is done according to the judgement of commanders in the field, and based on the threat posed to the security forces." Haim Israeli, Assistant to the Defense Minister, wrote to B'Tselem that "the use of flechette shells in combat is not forbidden. In regards to when this weapon is used, the IDF is aware of the need to balance between military need on one hand, and humanitarian concerns and minimization of damage to the civilian population on the other. The policy regarding the use of various types of weapons is determined based on these considerations."

These claims cannot justify the use of flechette shells by the IDF in the Gaza Strip. While flechettes are not expressly forbidden under international humanitarian law in all circumstances, 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.

The long killing range of the shell makes its use in populated areas such as the Gaza Strip a type of indiscriminate firing in which there is a particularly high danger of harming innocent civilians. In addition, during combat in a built-up area, the likelihood of errors in identifying the source of light-weapons fire is particularly great. Because of the duty to limit to the extent possible harm to innocent civilians, added caution is required when selecting the military response, including the type of ammunition.

The great danger posed by flechettes to civilians not involved in the hostilities led the OC Central Command to forbid the use of flechettes in the West Bank. Given that most of the incidents of gunfire in the Gaza Strip occur in or near populated areas, the use of flechette shells should also be prohibited in Gaza, particularly given the variety and sophistication of the weapons available to the IDF. The failure of the OC Southern Command to prohibit this weapon is particularly troubling.

In October 2002, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights petitioned the High Court of Justice to forbid the IDF to use flechette shells in the Occupied Territories. The High Court denied the petition.

In its decision, given in April 2003, the justices recognized that "the use of flechettes - which are intended to strike field targets - entails increased danger that they will accidentally also hit persons who are not involved in the fighting against the army, but find themselves in the area at which the shell was fired." The High Court also understood that innocent civilians in the Occupied Territories were in fact struck, and some civilians were killed, by flechettes. Nevertheless, the justices chose to favor the formalistic arguments and ignored basic rules of international law. In their decision, the justices stated that "the use of flechettes is not explicitly prohibited by international law," and that "the choice of the means of warfare that the Respondents use to thwart murderous terrorist acts before they occur is not among the subjects with which this court finds it appropriate to interfere." The justices added that "the Respondents satisfied us" that the scope of the use of flechettes is limited in accordance with rules under which the forces in the field operate and that the commander in the field is obliged to act in accordance with directives intended to prevent harm to civilians. These rules and instructions were never presented to the High Court.