Israel accused of using white phosphorus in Gaza

Mohamed Badereldin, Friday 13 Oct 2023

Multiple international NGOs have accused the Israeli military of using the widely restricted chemical weapon white phosphorus against residents of Gaza.

White Phosphorus
Airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus fall over the Gaza city port, October 11, 2023. AFP


The use of the highly flammable chemical compound white phosphorus was first reported by the Palestinian News Agency WAFA in a Facebook post on Wednesday, where a video was posted showing the supposed use of the weapon. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW), based on verified video footage and witness accounts, reported on Thursday that Israeli forces deployed white phosphorus, banned by international law, during military operations on 10 and 11 October 2023, in Gaza and along the Israel-Lebanon border. 

This report is also based on a picture taken by an AFP correspondent which clearly shows airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus falling over the Gaza City port.

“The issue is that white phosphorus is indiscriminate,’’ Yasmine Ahmed, UK director of Human Rights Watch, commented Friday to AP. “It is used in a way that it cannot distinguish between a civilian population and a military target … particularly in a densely populated area.”

International humanitarian law prohibits the use of incendiary weapons, such as white phosphorus, in densely populated areas due to the indiscriminate harm they can cause to civilians and civilian infrastructure.

The videos analyzed by HRW depict multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over Gaza City and two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border. 

Amnesty International has joined the outcry, stating that their Crisis Evidence Lab has verified the presence of white phosphorus artillery rounds among Israeli military units operating in Gaza.

Amnesty International specifically highlighted a strike near a beachside hotel in Gaza City, where the alleged use of white phosphorus was investigated. The organization has pledged to further investigate these claims.

Israel rejected the claims made by human rights organizations.

"We deny those allegations; we have not made use of white phosphorus, not in Gaza and not in Lebanon," An Israeli military spokesperson said on Friday.

In response to incursions by Palestinian militants, who breached Israel's border over the weekend and launched fighting which has claimed 1,300 lives, Israel has been bombing Gaza relentlessly and enacted a strict blockade. 

Former Allegations

On 19 January 2009, Amnesty International accused the Israeli army of using white phosphorus in Gaza City. Amnesty International's fact-finding team, which arrived in the area, discovered undeniable evidence supporting these claims.

Amnesty International delegates found burning white phosphorus wedges near residential buildings, posing a significant risk to residents and their property. The streets and alleys, where children often played unaware of the danger, were filled with remnants of war.

HRW also released a report documenting Israel's extensive use of white phosphorus during Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day military operation in Gaza from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009.

The report emphasized that the unlawful use of white phosphorus was not accidental but deliberate, with the Israeli army employing air-bursting techniques in populated areas.

HRW found no evidence that white phosphorus was used against military targets but rather for its incendiary effect in densely populated areas. The report called for an independent investigation into the use of white phosphorus and the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes.

The Israeli army denied these allegations, claiming its weapons were in full compliance with international law.

What is White Phosphorus?

White phosphorus is an extremely flammable chemical compound designed for war which rapidly burns through flesh, reaching down to the bone and causing long-lasting damage. 

Moreover, white phosphorus burns are slow to heal and highly susceptible to infection. The compound's fragments, if not entirely removed, can even reignite upon exposure to oxygen. 

Burns covering only 10 percent of a human body are often fatal. Additionally, white phosphorus can lead to respiratory damage and organ failure.

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