Israeli white phosphorus stalks south Lebanon: rights groups

Israeli white phosphorus stalks south Lebanon: rights groups
Human Rights Watch has said Israel's 'widespread use of white phosphorus in south Lebanon' is putting civilians at 'grave risk'.
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Human Rights Watch has said it 'verified the use of white phosphorus munitions by Israeli forces in at least 17 municipalities across south Lebanon since October' [AA Video/Anadolu/Getty-archive]

Mohammad Hammud, in his late 70s, was at home with his wife in a south Lebanon border village when Israeli bombing hit. This time, the attack was different.

"Fire broke out in front of the house… there was a strange smell… we had trouble breathing," he told AFP by telephone from his village of Hula.

"We thought it was a regular bombing but when the emergency responders arrived they told us it was phosphorus and took us to hospital."

The Israeli military and Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement have been exchanging near-daily fire since the Gaza war began.

Lebanon has accused Israel of using controversial white phosphorus rounds, in attacks authorities say have harmed civilians and the environment.

White phosphorus, a substance that ignites on contact with oxygen, can be used to create smokescreens and to illuminate battlefields.

But the munition can also be used as an incendiary weapon and can cause fires, horrific burns, respiratory damage, organ failure, and even death.

"Israel's widespread use of white phosphorus in south Lebanon is putting civilians at grave risk and contributing to civilian displacement," Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Wednesday.

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The rights watchdog said it "verified the use of white phosphorus munitions by Israeli forces in at least 17 municipalities across south Lebanon since October", including five where it was "unlawfully used over populated residential areas".

AFP photographs taken on at least 10 separate occasions between October and April show eerie, octopus-like smoke plumes consistent with white phosphorus.

The images were taken in at least eight different locations along the border, several times in apparent proximity to houses.

The Israeli army said in October its procedures require that white phosphorus rounds "are not used in densely populated areas, subject to certain exceptions".

"This complies and goes beyond the requirements of international law," it said in a statement, adding that the army "does not use such shells for purposes of targeting or setting fire".


Lebanon's official National News Agency has repeatedly reported Israeli phosphorus bombing in south Lebanon, including in recent days, sometimes causing fires.

The agency said "phosphorus shells fell between the houses" in Hula on 28 January after "enemy artillery" targeted the village.

Hammud said he and his wife, in her 60s, were admitted to hospital in nearby Mais Al-Jabal after the attack that day, receiving treatment including oxygen.

The hospital told AFP that four civilians, two of them women, were admitted to intensive care for "asphyxiation and severe shortness of breath due to white phosphorus", including a man in his 70s and a woman in her 60s.

Lebanon's health ministry has registered 173 people as suffering from "chemical exposure due to white phosphorus" since October.

Doctors at three other hospitals in south Lebanon told AFP their facilities had treated people with respiratory symptoms of white phosphorus exposure.

Brian Castner, a weapons investigator for Amnesty International's crisis team, said "using white phosphorus in areas populated by civilians can constitute indiscriminate attacks, which are a violation of international humanitarian law".

"If civilians are injured or killed that can be a war crime," he added.

Peacekeepers from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon have also detected white phosphorus within their premises, a UN official told AFP, requesting anonymity as they were not authorised to brief the media.

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Farmers worried

The cross-border hostilities have killed more than 450 people in Lebanon according to an AFP tally, most of them fighters but also including 88 civilians.

Israel says 14 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed on its side of the border.

Amnesty International last year said it had "evidence of Israel's unlawful use of white phosphorus" in south Lebanon between 10 and 16 October.

A 16 October attack on the village of Dhayra "must be investigated as a war crime because it was an indiscriminate attack that injured at least nine civilians", Amnesty said at the time.

The White House in December expressed concern over reports that Israel used US-supplied white phosphorus in attacks on Lebanon.

Beirut in October lodged a complaint with the UN, charging that Israel's use of white phosphorus was "endangering the lives of a large number of innocent civilians and causing widespread environmental degradation, owing to the Israeli practice of burning Lebanese wooded areas".

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The use of white phosphorus has also caused alarm among south Lebanon farmers who have seen their agricultural lands burnt, with some worried about potential soil and crop contamination.

Tamara Elzein, secretary-general of Lebanon's National Council for Scientific Research, noted there was little literature on how white phosphorus bombing impacts soil.

The organisation was planning broad scientific sampling to assess any contamination but was "waiting for the ceasefire to send our team and to make this assessment", she said.

Antoine Kallab, associate director of the American University of Beirut's Nature Conservation Center, said "the lack of data" was causing panic and that some farmers were "scrambling to get testing" done.

"It's important that we take measurements as soon as possible" to understand whether white phosphorus shelling poses "a general risk on public health, on food security, on the ecosystem itself", he said.