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White phosphorus used by Israel reaches the Lebanese population

Photo: Hussein Malla Associated Press An Israeli shell that appears to emit white phosphorus explodes above Kfar Kila, a Lebanese village on the border with Israel, in November 2023.

Published at 10:50 a.m.

  • Middle East

Mohammad Hammoud was at home with his wife in southern Lebanon when Israeli bombings targeted their village earlier this year, unlike any he had ever experienced.

“A fire broke out in front of the house […] There was a strange smell […], we couldn’t breathe,” said the septuagenarian, reached by telephone by AFP.

“When the rescuers arrived, they told us it was phosphorus,” adds the man from Houla, near the border with Israel, who was hospitalized.

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Since the start of the war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas on October 7, Lebanese Hezbollah has regularly exchanged fire with the Israeli army, in support of its Palestinian ally.

Lebanese authorities accuse Israel of using white phosphorus munitions that harm civilians and the environment.

< p>This substance, which ignites on contact with oxygen, can be used to create smoke screens and illuminate battlefields.

But it can also be used as incendiary weapon and cause fires, severe burns, respiratory damage, organ failure and even death.

« Israel's Widespread Use of White Phosphorus in southern Lebanon endangers civilians and contributes to the displacement of civilians,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released Wednesday.

The NGO said it had “verified the use of white phosphorus munitions by Israeli forces in at least 17 municipalities in southern Lebanon since October,” including five where they were “illegally used against populated residential areas.”

“War crime”

AFP footage taken on at least ten occasions between October and April shows strange octopus-shaped plumes of smoke, commonly associated with white phosphorus.

The footage was taken at least eight different locations, many close to homes.

The Israeli military said in October that its procedures require that white phosphorus bombs “are not used in densely populated areas, with certain exceptions.”

“This is consistent with and goes beyond the requirements of international law,” it said in a statement, adding that the military “does not use such shells for targeting or fire”.

The official Lebanese news agency ANI has repeatedly reported Israeli phosphorus bombings in southern Lebanon, including in recent days, sometimes causing fires.

She said the village of Houla suffered such a bombardment on January 28, the day Mohammad Hammoud and his wife were admitted to a nearby hospital.

The hospital told AFP that four civilians had been admitted to intensive care for “severe asphyxia and shortness of breath due to white phosphorus.”

The Lebanese Ministry of Health indicated on Wednesday that it had identified 178 people suffering from “chemical exposure due to white phosphorus” since October, without distinguishing civilians from combatants.

“The use of white phosphorus in areas populated by civilians may […] constitute a violation of international humanitarian law,” Brian Castner, military expert at Amnesty International, told AFP.

“If civilians are injured or killed, it may constitute a war crime,” he added.

Complaint to the UN

Blue helmets deployed in southern Lebanon have also detected white phosphorus in their premises, assured AFP a UN official, on condition of anonymity.

Cross-border fighting between Hezbollah and Israel has left more than 450 dead in Lebanon according to a count by the AFP, mostly combatants, but also 88 civilians, and caused the exodus of more than 94,000 people.

Amnesty International reported last year that it had “ evidence of Israel's illegal use of white phosphorus” in southern Lebanon between October 10 and 16.

In particular, it ruled that an October 16 attack on the village of Dhayra, which injured at least nine civilians, should “be investigated as a war crime.”

In December, the White House expressed concern over reports that Israel had used U.S.-supplied white phosphorus in attacks in Lebanon.

Beirut filed a complaint with the UN in October, accusing Israel of having “endangered the lives of a large number of civilians” by using white phosphorus and of having “caused widespread environmental degradation” by “burning Lebanese forested areas.”

The use of white phosphorus has also raised concerns among farmers in southern Lebanon whose land has burned, some fearing potential contamination of soil and crops.

Tamara Elzein, secretary general of the National Council for Scientific Research in Lebanon, notes that there is little documentation relating to the impact of white phosphorus bombardment on the ground.

This organization is planning a large number of scientific samples to assess possible contamination but is waiting for a ceasefire to send a team to carry out this assessment, she explained to AFP.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116