Evidence Suggests Use in Gaza and Lebanon
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently accused Israel of deploying white phosphorus munitions during its military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. This development has incited concerns about potential serious and long-term injuries to civilians in these densely populated areas.
According to HRW, verified videos taken in Lebanon and Gaza on October 10 and 11, 2023, respectively, show multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza City port and two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border.
The rights group interviewed two witnesses from the al-Mina area in Gaza City, who both described experiencing strikes consistent with the use of white phosphorus. These witnesses reported seeing white lines going earthward following explosions in the sky and highlighted a strong, stifling smell.
Effects and International Concerns
White phosphorus is an incendiary weapon, which can cause bone-deep burns that might result in death or life-long injuries. This substance can spread fires while also acting as a destructive explosive. When exposed to white phosphorus, “even relatively minor burns are often fatal,” HRW mentioned, emphasizing the substance’s potential to reignite when dressings are removed from treated wounds.
“Any time that white phosphorus is used in crowded civilian areas, it poses a high risk of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering,” stated Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. She further commented on its unlawfulness when airburst in urban settings, stressing its ability to burn down structures and inflict grave harm on civilians.
Although white phosphorus’s use in combat zones isn’t outright banned under international law, its deployment near civilians is prohibited under the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons. It’s worth noting that Israel hasn’t signed this convention.
Reactions and Historical Context
When questioned about the allegations, Israel’s military responded, saying it was “currently not aware of the use of weapons containing white phosphorus in Gaza.” They refrained from commenting on the allegations regarding its use in Lebanon.
This isn’t the first time Israel faces such accusations. During the 2008-2009 Gaza offensive, Israel faced criticism for its widespread use of white phosphorus, particularly in populated areas. Following these events, Israel’s military stated in 2013 that it would curtail the use of white phosphorus in such settings, only considering it under exceptional circumstances.
The recent escalation in the region followed a significant attack by Hamas, resulting in over 1,300 Israeli casualties. In retaliation, Israel has launched airstrikes on Gaza, leading to more than 1,500 Palestinian deaths and over 6,600 injuries, according to officials from the enclave.
Calls for Clarity and Regulation
As the international community grapples with the implications of these findings, there’s a consensus about the need for clarity regarding the use of such weapons. Houchang Hassan-Yari, professor emeritus of politics and international relations at the Royal Military College of Canada, highlighted the ambiguity surrounding white phosphorus. He commented on its primary use as a means to obscure anti-air systems but also indicated that its potential human impact could be construed as a war crime.
Human Rights Watch has urged Israel to prohibit the use of “airburst” white phosphorus in populated regions, pointing out the existence of non-lethal alternatives. The ongoing conflict and these recent revelations stress the importance of international regulations and clarity around weapon usage in warfare.