A new investigation by human rights group Amnesty International has found that Israel likely committed a war crime by using the extremely caustic chemical white phosphorus along the southern border of Lebanon amidst intensified fighting against Hezbollah.
The group analyzed photos and videos surrounding an attack in several populated Lebanese border towns between October 10 and 16, 2023, and found evidence that Israel used white phosphorus smoke artillery shells in attacks on the area. Interviews with doctors and government leaders in the towns of Dhayra, Yarine and Marwahin find that residents were admitted to the hospital reporting suffocation and having trouble breathing.
Videos of the area show white plumes dispersed by artillery consistent with white phosphorus, Amnesty says, while others show chunks descending to the ground and igniting in a way that strongly suggests the substance is white phosphorus. Meanwhile, photojournalists have taken photos showing white phosphorus artillery shells lined up next to other Israeli weapons near the Lebanese border on October 18.
“A very bad odour and massive cloud covered the town so that we were not able to see beyond five or six metres in front of us,” Abdullah al-Ghrayyeb, the mayor of Dharya, told Amnesty. “This caused people to frantically flee their homes. And when some returned two days later, their houses were still burning. Cars caught fire. Land areas were also burnt down. Until today, you find remnants — the size of a fist — that reignite when exposed to air.”
White phosphorus is often used to create a smokescreen in war. Using the substance in civilian areas is considered a war crime due to its extremely dangerous effects on the human body. White phosphorus ignites instantly when in contact with oxygen. It can burn through the human body, including through bone, causing severe, excruciating damage. It can also cause extreme harm when inhaled, with risks of suffocation, cardiovascular failure, coma, death, and other lifelong effects. The substance burns at temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some human rights organizations have found that Israeli forces have also used white phosphorus on parts of Gaza, which is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. Human Rights Watch has said that Israel’s use of the substance in Gaza is a violation of international law.
Amnesty’s report found that Israel used the phosphorus shells indiscriminately, meaning that they did not take care to distinguish whether it was used against civilians or fighters. One official told Amnesty that a screen of heavy white smoke covered Dharya all night and morning on October 16 and 17, with people not even being able to see their hands.
The potentially illegal use of the substance on civilian areas “must be investigated as a war crime,” Amnesty wrote.
“It is beyond horrific that the Israeli army has indiscriminately used white phosphorous in violation of international humanitarian law. The unlawful use of white phosphorus in Lebanon in the town of Dhayra on 16 October has seriously endangered the lives of civilians, many of whom were hospitalized and displaced, and whose homes and cars caught fire,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
In response to the report, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) introduced an amendment on Wednesday that would ban Israel from using U.S. military funding to deploy white phosphorus against civilians. It is being proposed as an addition to a supplemental aid bill proposed by Republicans to give Israel $14.3 billion in aid, on top of the billions of dollars the U.S. already gives Israel annually — while also cutting billions from tax enforcement against U.S. millionaires and billionaires.
“Deployment of white phosphorous near populated civilian areas is a war crime,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “Two independent, well-respected international human rights organizations have formally concluded that Israel is deploying white phosphorous in civilian areas. The United States must adhere to our own laws and policies, which prohibit U.S. aid from assisting forces engaged in gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.”
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