Israel-Gaza conflict: What are flechette shells and are they legal?

A small pointed metal dart known as a flechette, usually spread over a wide area in large numbers from a shell. A Palestinian human rights organization claims Israel has used flechette shells in its incursion in the Gaza Strip. (File photo, 2009). Ben Curtis/AP Photo

A Palestinian human rights organization claimed Israel is firing shells at targets in Gaza that contain thousands of small metal darts.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights provided The Guardian with a photo purportedly showing darts from what are known as flechette shells, saying the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) fired them at the Gaza Strip village of Khuzaa on July 17.

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According to the Guardian‘s report, a 37-year-old woman was injured in the strike—the first day of the Israeli ground offensive into Gaza.

The IDF didn’t deny using flechette shells, The Guardian reported, saying it “only deploys weapons that have been determined lawful under international law.”

What are flechette shells?

The tank- or aircraft-fired shells contain thousands of metal darts— fléchette is the French word for dart— each about 37.5 millimetres long.

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Once the shell explodes in the air, the darts spread out in a “conical arch 300 metres long and about 90 metres wide,” according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.

A graphic posted on The Guardian‘s website illustrates how a shell, 105 millimetres in diametre, contains 8,000 darts.

It also depicts how the dart bends upon entering the body of a victim, while the fin “often breaks away” and inflicts a separate wound.

Flechette shells are used in combat to hit targets in dense vegetation to “strike a relatively large number of enemy soldiers,” B’Tselem explained on its website.

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Has Israel used flechette shells before?

Although the IDF has reportedly used flechette shells for a number of years, one of the most prominent instances was in the 2008 death of 23-year-old Reuters photographer Fadel Shana and two other Palestinian civilians.

Haaretz reported Palestinian doctors took X-rays of Shana’s body that “clearly demonstrat[ed] the presence of small metal darts,” while darts were also lodged in his press flak jacket.
A Palestinian looks on as a small pointed metal dart known as a flechette, usually spread over a wide area in large numbers from a shell, is seen sticking out of the wall of a destroyed house in Mughraka, in the Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009. (File photo). Ben Curtis/AP Photo

B’Tselem, on its website, listed other incidents between 2001 and 2003 in which Palestinian civilians were known to be killed as a result of flechette shells, while a United Nations fact-finding mission documented several Palestinian civilians being killed or injured by flechettes during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009.

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Is it legal to use flechette shells?

The UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission into the Dec. 27, 2008-Jan. 18, 2009 conflict between Israel and Gaza noted flechette shells weren’t capable of “discriminating” between targets once the shell explodes.

“They are, therefore, particularly unsuitable for use in urban settings where there is reason to believe civilians may be present,” the mission’s report explained.

While the report, known as the Goldstone report after mission head Justice Richard Goldstone, noted flechette shells are not prohibited under international humanitarian law, the mission stated “the principles of proportionality and precautions necessary in attack render their use illegal.”

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Israel, following Operation Cast Lead, said the use of flechettes is legal and that they “are not prohibited under the Law of Armed Conflict or under specific conventional prohibitions or restrictions.”

The government also argued the munitions are used by militaries in a number of conflicts around the world.

Israel said in 2010 it was phasing out its use of U.S.-made flechette shells in favour of Israeli-made Anti-Personnel Anti-Material shells, containing “a tight cluster of bomblets.”

Brigadier-Gen. Agay Yehezkel, commander of the Israeli Defense Force Armoured Corp, told Reuters at the time the change was “a matter of opting for a shell that performs better, with obvious humanitarian benefits.”

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He added the “kill zone is much reduced, and focused.”

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