Source: Human Rights Watch
Photo Credit: © 2023 Mohammed Adeb/AFP via Getty Images
(Beirut, October 12, 2023) – A grave infringement on human rights has been observed as Israel’s use of white phosphorus in military operations in Gaza and Lebanon threatens countless innocent lives, leaving civilians exposed to grievous and enduring injuries. Human Rights Watch brought this pressing concern to the forefront today, releasing an in-depth question and answer document about the profound dangers of white phosphorus. Verified footage from Lebanon and Gaza taken on October 10 and 11, 2023, reveals artillery-fired white phosphorus streaking across the skies of Gaza City port and locations near the Israel-Lebanon border, further corroborated by testimonies from two witnesses in Gaza.
White phosphorus, though utilized for various purposes like marking, signaling, or creating obscurity, primarily serves as a weapon with an incendiary effect potent enough to scar human flesh and ravage structures, agricultural fields, and other civilian possessions. Given Gaza’s status as one of the world’s most densely populated regions, the use of such hazardous material gravely magnifies the risks civilians face, making this a blatant disregard for the international humanitarian law’s protection against unnecessary endangerment of civilians.
Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, voiced her anguish, “Deploying white phosphorus in areas swarming with civilians isn’t just risky—it’s a harrowing invitation to unparalleled pain, long-term afflictions, and life-changing traumas. This indiscriminate use, especially in dense urban settings, results in homes being razed to the ground and the unmeasurable torment of innocent civilians.”
Testimonies from two individuals in Gaza’s al-Mina region recount the sight of strikes synonymous with white phosphorus deployment. Their narratives paint a harrowing scene of airstrikes followed by blinding explosions and descending white streaks. The overpowering stench left in the wake of these attacks further signifies the presence of white phosphorus.
Through meticulous verification, Human Rights Watch confirmed the use of airburst 155mm white phosphorus artillery projectiles in the documented strikes in Gaza City’s port. Multiple other videos echoing these findings were also found on social media. The unmistakable dense white smoke and the pungent aroma resembling garlic further underscore the presence of this dangerous substance.
White phosphorus’s lethal properties are well-known: it ignites upon contact with air, emitting intense heat and light until it’s devoid of oxygen. Its insidious nature means it can burn human flesh, even reaching down to the bone, and can re-ignite already treated wounds once they’re re-exposed to oxygen. Minor burns can prove fatal, while survivors face disfigurement, physical disabilities, profound psychological trauma, and societal ostracization.
Human Rights Watch emphasizes that the deployment of white phosphorus in Gaza’s densely populated regions is a blatant breach of international humanitarian law, which mandates every possible measure be taken to safeguard civilians from harm. Such transgressions are even more pronounced when considering the technique of airbursting white phosphorus projectiles, which spreads its burning components across vast areas, endangering a larger civilian populace and their infrastructure.
To this day, Israeli authorities remain silent about their alleged use of white phosphorus amid these conflicts.
Israel’s employment of white phosphorus emerges against the backdrop of heightened hostilities, marked by Hamas’s devastating attacks earlier this month. The current death toll stands at over 1,300 Israelis, inclusive of a significant civilian count, while reports suggest that more than 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed. The Israeli authorities’ decision to cut off vital supplies to Gaza further exacerbates an already dire humanitarian scenario, aggravating the misery resulting from over 16 years of blockade.
This isn’t the first instance of Israel using white phosphorus in conflicts. Their history dates back to 2009 in Gaza. A compelling argument exists for Israel to ban the use of such “airburst” phosphorus munitions in populated areas, especially when safer alternatives are readily available.
A 2013 response to a petition by Israel’s High Court of Justice regarding this matter had the Israeli military stating limited usage in populated areas. However, the current evidence suggests otherwise, reigniting concerns over its unchecked use.
Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) strictly prohibits the use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas. The protocol needs further strengthening, as some countries believe it doesn’t cover multipurpose munitions like white phosphorus. Both Human Rights Watch and numerous states ardently advocate for addressing these gaps in Protocol III.
The upcoming CCW Meeting of States Parties, scheduled for November at the United Nations in Geneva, offers an opportune moment to revisit and strengthen these protocols.
In conclusion, Lama Fakih emphasized, “For the well-being of civilians, Israel must cease using white phosphorus in densely inhabited zones. Every party involved in this conflict bears the responsibility of minimizing harm to civilians and preventing further suffering.”