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Hussein Fakih, head of civil defence for the southern Nabatiyeh region, told The National that Lebanese firefighters have been combating blazes caused by white phosphorus while wearing N95 masks.
“The use of white phosphorus is new and we are not prepared for it; we lack the necessary protective gear,” he said while displaying the masks that are similar to those used to protect against the spread of Covid-19.
Fires caused by Israeli shelling have devastated about 462 hectares of land, according to Minister of Environment Nasser Yassi, adding further strain to emergency response efforts that are already grappling with decaying infrastructure and ageing ambulances and fire engines.
And with Israel's use of white phosphorus, firefighters have suffered pulmonary injuries amid attempts to combat blazes in recent weeks.
White phosphorus is a toxic and highly flammable chemical that can cause suffocation, organ failure and severe burns when it comes in contact with the skin. Its use is highly regulated and cannot be used as an incendiary weapon against civilians and civilian infrastructures.
Human right groups and Lebanese officials have accused Israel of using white phosphorus in south Lebanon, causing fires and indiscriminately attacking civilians. Israel has denied the claims.
The Lebanese Civil Defence received this week a few highly protective masks for some of its 13 centres in the Nabatieh district, a donation from the Spanish UN peacekeepers.
“But we don't have the filters to go with them, which we need to change after every mission,” Mr Fakih said.
New realities of war
Amid an unofficial truce on the Lebanese front, which has been broadly followed despite several breaches, an unusual calm prevails at the Marjayoun Centre, one of the 21 that Mr Fakih is responsible for.
He said that since the onset of the conflict, civil defence has engaged in a minimum of 25 missions per day, including firefighting, ambulance services and rescue operations.
In general, he said that the 21 centres across south Lebanon, which have 275 employees and 180 volunteers, are ill equipped to face the conflict between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, which is attempting to divert Israel's military campaign away from the Gaza Strip.
Confronted with the realities of war, the civil defence is grappling with new challenges.
“Israel does not distinguish between the Red Cross, civilians, ambulances, journalists; we work under shelling,” Mr Fakih said. “We did not expect that we would need helmets and bulletproof vests.”
According to an AFP tally, the violence has killed 109 on the Lebanese side, most of them combatants, but also 15 civilians, including three journalists. On the Israeli side, at least nine have died, six of them soldiers.
Civil defence teams, Mr Fakih said, have not received any funds from the cash-strapped Lebanese state, which is facing an unprecedented economic crisis that is now in its fifth year.
Lebanon, which has a caretaker government and no president for a year, has developed an emergency plan to respond “with its “humble means” in case of war, according to Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
“We have no other choice but to work with what we have in hand,” Mr Fakih said.
'Protecting the protectors'
Against this backdrop, the Civil Affairs and Civil Military Co-operation operators of the UN peacekeeping mission known as Unifil have been reaching out to local authorities in municipalities closest to the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel to identify their emergency needs.
Last Tuesday, the Cimic team of the French Contingent Reserve and troops from Finland donated several emergency items to the 13 Marjayoun centres.
These included stretchers, body bags, compression bandages and oxygen units, with a demonstration of the use of equipment conducted by a French team of elite firefighters from the FCR.
Cpt Estelle, who took part in the distribution at the Froun emergency centre in southern Lebanon, told The National that these essential supplies were directly requested by Lebanese Civil Defence.
She added that the FCR has also requested the donations of special masks against white phosphorus, responding to another urgent need expressed from the field.
“We assess daily with local authorities to identify needs related to fields polluted, damage caused by fires, and destruction of homes or buildings. This allows us to provide emergency and midterm responses to these needs,” Cpt Estelle added.
“The purpose of the initiative is to protect the protectors: to provide assistance to those who are protecting others,” Cpt Le Roy, commanding officer of the FCR, told The National.
As the conflict seems poised to continue, Mr Fakih said the protection of rescue teams was essential.
“This is a priority; if emergency workers are injured, there would be no one left to save both the victims and the rescuers,” he said.