Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday said Israel was using white phosphorus bombs during military operations in Lebanon and Gaza this week following a surprise attack by Hamas.
The fighting between Israel and Hamas has killed more than 1,200 people in Israel and 1,400 lives in Gaza, in the deadliest attack since the country’s creation in 1948.
The international organization said it verified videos taken in Lebanon and Gaza on October 10 and 11 showing “multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza City port and two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border.”
Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director Lama Fakih said the use of white phosphorus in crowded civilian areas poses a high risk of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering.
Horrifying! Israel is allegedly using internationally banned white phosphorus in Gaza. These munitions are an indiscriminate incendiary weapon that ignites on contact with oxygen. In closed spaces, the toxic fumes can cause asphyxiation and permanent respiratory damage. pic.twitter.com/Tw9G8JqW8s— Wajahat Kazmi (@KazmiWajahat) October 12, 2023
The HRW also said that the use of the chemical in densely populated areas of Gaza violates international humanitarian and urged for precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. Israeli authorities have not confirmed whether they are using white phosphorus during the ongoing fighting.
What is White Phosphorus?
White phosphorus, which leave a signature white trail in the sky, is used either for marking, signalling, and obscuring, or as a weapon to set fires that burn people and objects.
The chemical ignites when exposed to atmospheric oxygen and continues to burn until it is deprived of oxygen or exhausted. The chemical reaction also creates intense heat with temperature rising to 815 degrees Celsius.
It has a significant incendiary effect that can severely burn people and set structures, fields, and other civilian objects in the vicinity on fire. Apart from targeting people, the chemical is used for creating smokescreens to hide troop movements, illuminate the battlefield or destroy buildings by fire.
Why it is Concerning?
The use of white phosphorus in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, magnifies the risk to civilians and violates the international humanitarian law prohibition on putting civilians at unnecessary risk, the Human Rights Watch said.
The white phosphorus, upon coming in contact with humans, “can burn them thermally and chemically, down to the bone as it is highly soluble in fat and therefore in human flesh,” the agency said.
The chemical fragments can worsen wounds even after treatment and can enter the bloodstream and cause multiple organ failure. The dressed wounds can also reignite when the dressings are removed and exposed to oxygen. In such cases, even minor burns can be fatal. For survivors, extensive scarring tightens muscle tissue and creates physical disabilities.
International Law regarding white phosphorus
Under international law, white phosphorus is banned for use near civilians but is permitted for creating a smokescreen.
The chemical is not covered by the Convention on Chemical Weapons (CCW) which entered into force in 1997. Though, the attacks using air-delivered incendiary weapons in civilian areas are prohibited under Protocol III of the CCW, but the rule applies only to weapons that are “primarily designed” to set fires or cause burns, and therefore some nations believe it excludes certain multipurpose munitions including those containing white phosphorus.
Phosphorus “is not classified as a chemical weapon, it’s available to many of the world’s armies,” said Olivier Lepick, a researcher with France’s Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), according to AFP.
Israeli military has been using white phosphorus in Palestinian territories in previous conflicts in Gaza, including in the 2009 conflict, where the head of the UN’s aid agency for Palestinians accused Israel of using white phosphorus in Gaza.
In 2013, in response to a petition regarding the use of white phosphorus in Gaza, the Israeli military said it would no longer use white phosphorus in populated areas except in “highly particular circumstances.”
Countries That Used Phosphorus Weapons
- In 2022, Ukraine accused Russian troops of using phosphorus bombs during the Ukraine War.
- Russia has also accused Ukraine’s army of phosphorus use in 2014, against Russia-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
- The US forces were accused of using phosphorus bombs in their 2004 assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah.
- Syrian observers accused Russia of using incendiaries in Syria against Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold near Damascus.
- Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of bombing civilian areas or using banned phosphorus weapons in their war over Nagorny Karabakh in 2020.