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Lebanon: urgent call to end Israel’s use of white phosphorus in populated areas

In a major report launched today – June 5th, 2024 – Human Rights Watch (HRW) has brought to light the significant risks posed by Israel’s use of white phosphorus in south Lebanon. The HRW report documents the use of these incendiary munitions across at least 17 municipalities since October 2023, including five municipalities where airburst munitions were unlawfully deployed over populated areas, resulting in severe civilian harm and widespread displacement.

White phosphorus is a chemical substance contained in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets. When exposed to oxygen, it ignites and causes extreme burns and respiratory damage, often leading to lifelong suffering. The use of airburst white phosphorus in populated areas is particularly alarming because it is indiscriminate, impacting both civilians and civilian structures, thus violating international humanitarian law.

“Israel’s use of airburst white phosphorus munitions in populated areas indiscriminately harms civilians and has led many to leave their homes,” stated Ramzi Kaiss, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The HRW investigation included detailed interviews with eight residents from south Lebanon and the analysis of 47 photos and videos that confirmed the deployment of white phosphorus. These visual and anecdotal evidences were geolocated and verified, underscoring the extensive civilian impact. The Lebanese Ministry of Public Health reported that at least 173 people have been injured by exposure to white phosphorus since October 2023. While no burn injuries have been directly evidenced, accounts of respiratory damage have been numerous.

Dr. Tharwat Zahran, a medical toxicologist at the American University of Beirut, emphasized the severe health impacts: “The most severe effects of white phosphorus are the dermal or skin effects, which can include second and third degree burns that can lead to very significant, deep necrotic and full thickness burns. Exposure to white phosphorus smoke could also lead to acute upper respiratory damages including shortness of breath, fast breathing, [and] coughing, but it could also have delayed effects, [including] chemical pneumonitis, which might require hospitalization and respiratory support through a machine.”

The mayor of Boustane, one of the affected villages, recounted the immediate aftermath of an attack on October 15: “Two people from the village had to be rushed to the hospital as a result of asphyxiation from inhaling white phosphorus smoke following the attack. These are civilians, who were both in their houses. One was a member of the municipality, and the other was a farmer.”

Human Rights Watch noted that the use of white phosphorus in populated areas has significantly contributed to the displacement of residents from several villages along the Lebanon-Israel border. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) indicated minimal displacement from these areas until the attacks began, highlighting the direct correlation between white phosphorus use and civilian displacement.

This situation is compounded by the ongoing conflict, characterized by heavy bombardment and armed clashes between the Israeli military and various Lebanese armed groups, including Hezbollah. Since October 8, the day after a Hamas-led attack in southern Israel, the region has seen a marked increase in violence. According to media reports, Israeli attacks in Lebanon have killed at least 88 civilians and over 300 fighters, while attacks in Israel by Hezbollah and armed Palestinian groups have resulted in the deaths of at least 11 civilians and 14 soldiers. The humanitarian toll includes over 93,000 people displaced from south Lebanon and at least 80,000 from northern Israel.

The report also stresses the inadequacy of current international regulations on incendiary weapons. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which addresses such armaments, has significant loopholes. Specifically, it does not cover certain multipurpose munitions with incendiary effects, like those containing white phosphorus, and has weaker regulations for ground-launched incendiary weapons than for air-dropped ones. HRW and numerous countries have called for these gaps to be closed to better protect civilians.

At the national level, HRW urges Israel to prohibit the use of airburst white phosphorus munitions in populated areas, given the availability of less harmful alternatives. There are alternatives to white phosphorus for creating smoke screens, including the M150 smoke projectile produced by Israeli companies, which the Israeli army has previously used. These alternatives can achieve the same military objectives with significantly reduced harm to civilians.

Lebanon, on its part, should promptly file a declaration with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to enable the investigation and prosecution of international crimes on Lebanese territory since October 2023. This step is crucial for holding accountable those responsible for the unlawful use of white phosphorus and ensuring justice for the victims.

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has joined the call for immediate international intervention. Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, highlighted the urgent need for stronger international standards: “Stronger international standards against the use of white phosphorus are needed to ensure these weapons do not continue to endanger civilians. The global community must act now to prevent further civilian suffering.”

The HRW report underscores the dire consequences of white phosphorus use in armed conflicts. The substance, which burns at extremely high temperatures and can cause severe injuries down to the bone, has long-term health implications. Fragments of white phosphorus can exacerbate wounds even after treatment and can enter the bloodstream, causing multiple organ failures. Wounds can reignite when exposed to oxygen, making even minor burns potentially fatal. Survivors often face extensive scarring, physical disabilities, psychological trauma, and social exclusion.

Given the ongoing violence and the humanitarian crisis it has precipitated, immediate and decisive action is needed. The international community must enhance legal frameworks to prevent the use of such indiscriminate and harmful weapons. Israel must adopt alternative measures that do not pose the same risks to civilians, and Lebanon must pursue legal avenues to seek justice and accountability.

The use of white phosphorus in populated areas is not only a violation of international law but a profound humanitarian tragedy that demands immediate attention and action.