Lebanon's firefighters battle Israel's white phosphorus fires with COVID masks

Lebanon's firefighters battle Israel's white phosphorus fires with COVID masks
The cash-strapped Lebanese state has unable to buy its firefighters the proper supplies to fight the increasing number of blazes occurring as a result of the Hezbollah-Israel border clashes.
3 min read
05 December, 2023
Anis Abla, the head of the firefighting center in the southern Lebanese city of Marjayoun, holds up the equipment firefighters previously used to combat white phosphorus fires. [William Christou/TNA].

Firefighters in southern Lebanon are facing a lack of resources and support as fighting between Hezbollah and Israel along the Lebanese-Israeli border intensifies, in turn increasing the need for firefighting and rescue services.

Rocket exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel started on 8 October after Hezbollah launched a strike "in solidarity" with Hamas' surprise attack over Gaza's border the day prior.

The near-daily rocket exchanges have amplified, causing forest fires as well as injuries and deaths among residents of towns along the border towns.

Since clashes started, firefighters have had an average of "20 to 25 missions per day," a massive surge compared to before 8 October, Husayn Fakih, head of civil defence for south Lebanon, told The New Arab.

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Daily demands on firefighters range from trying to put out forest fires to rescuing people trapped under rubble as a result of Israeli shelling.

Firefighters have found themselves ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the escalating conflicts, forced to use old equipment that exposes them to danger.

Israel's use of white phosphorus has posed a particular challenge for the firefighters, as remnants of the chemical munition can reignite over a month after being launched. The intense amounts of smoke it produces are also toxic for humans.

According to Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, on 2 December, Israel's use of white phosphorus has produced "irreversible damage to more than 5 million square meters of forests and farmland."

Until two weeks ago, civil defence staff were putting out white phosphorus blazes while only equipped with a pair of safety goggles and an N-95 mask – the same type used to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Firefighters were then donated proper gas masks by the Spanish unit of UNIFIL but were only given three masks with one filter each per civil defence centre.

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275 employees and 180 volunteers work across the 21 civil defence centres in Lebanon's south.

Gas mask filters are supposed to be swapped after every exposure to toxic white phosphorus fumes, but firefighters are using filters repeatedly as no other alternative is available.

The safest way to put out a white phosphorus fire is to bury the remnants of the chemical munition under black or white cement or dry sand, but Lebanon's firefighting force does not have access to those materials, Lt. Michel Murr of the Beirut Fire Brigade, told TNA.

Lebanon's state, after four years of economic crisis and a foreign exchange crunch that has seen the national currency lose over 98 per cent of its value, cannot afford to buy new equipment for its firefighters.

"We have not been given a new uniform nor a pair of boots since 2017," Fakih said.

One civil defence employee in south Lebanon who declined to give their name because they were not authorised to speak to the media said they had to buy their own equipment, as the equipment available did not adequately protect them from white phosphorus smoke.

Cross-border fighting between Hezbollah and Israel resumed once again on 1 December after the Hamas-Israel ceasefire ended. There have been at least two reported instances of Israel using White Phosphorus since then.

"This long period [of fighting] is exhausting; it's a drain on the energy of the employees and the volunteers. But in the end, we provide safety for residents here, and we are determined to stand by them and protect their lives and their property," Fakih said.