Lebanese civilians speak out against Israeli use of white phosphorus

Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using the 'unlawfully indiscriminate' munition

Human Rights Watch claims these are bursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza city port on October 11. Getty / AFP
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“You cannot mistake white phosphorus for anything else; the smell does not give room for hesitation,” said Samia Gharbieh, 60, from Dhayra in southern Lebanon.

This munition, which releases dense white smoke and emits a distinctive, garlic-like odour, can cause severe burns on contact and inflict long-lasting harm.

Human Rights Watch has claimed white phosphorus was used by Israel in Lebanon and Gaza amid the Israel-Gaza war after Hamas’s deadly attacks on October 7.

The National could not independently verify the claim.

“White phosphorous is unlawfully indiscriminate when airburst in populated urban areas, where it can burn down houses and cause egregious harm to civilians,” the rights group said on October 12.

Ms Gharbieh said: “[Israel] has been using it intensively against us in the past few days. This Monday was the most violent. You couldn’t see anything."

That day, as shelling persisted for hours, she found refuge at her brother's house.

Ms Gharbieh said that they closed the windows and turned on the fans to dissipate the smoke and avoid ingesting the white phosphorus.

While they were sheltering, a second strike dealt the final blow to her house, which had already been damaged by an Israeli strike a week earlier when she was inside.

“It was white phosphorus shells, there is nothing left of the house," Ms Gharbieh said, as she showed pictures on her phone of her collapsed home.

“I would have died if I had stayed."

When the bombing finally stopped, they rushed to leave the town. The rest of her family, including her children, had already left at the start of the clashes.

Ms Gharbieh is now staying at a school in Tyre, a city in south Lebanon spared from the violence, which has been converted into a makeshift internally displaced people's camp, hosting hundreds like her.

Dhayra is among the border towns in Lebanon that have been subjected to the heaviest shelling since the bombing started, amid fear that the war between Hamas, Hezbollah's ally, and Israel, might spill over into Lebanon.

“You have to be careful,” she said.

Ms Gharbieh saw Issam Abdallah, a videographer for Reuters who died after an Israeli strike hit the area he was covering.

“He was reporting from our village a couple of hours before he died," she said.

Hospitals prepare

Wissam Ghazal, 43, a doctor at the Ministry of Health, told The National, that the use of white phosphorus in Lebanon was “something I have never seen".

He said about 10 people have been taken to the hospitals in Tyre because of white phosphorus-related injuries.

“So far, there are only light injuries, all related to inhalation, and not direct burns,” Dr Ghazal said.

Among them are also rescuers who inhaled the toxic fume while aiding those in need after the shelling, he said.

White phosphorus injuries require a specific treatment, including equipment and resources for ambulances and hospitals. Such equipment is scarce in cash-strapped Lebanon, Dr Ghazal said.

“We are not ready,” he said, stressing that the Ministry of Health is organising training sessions for medical personnel.

White phosphorus can be legally used on battlefields for making smoke screens to conceal movement.

Due to its legitimate uses, it is not classified as a chemical weapon under international conventions.

Protocol III of the Convention on the Prohibition of Use of Certain Conventional Weapons classifies white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon and, as such, prohibits its use against military targets in civilian areas.

The convention is ratified by Palestine and Lebanon but not by Israel, which is not bound by its provisions.

Israel has been accused of using white phosphorus weapons in previous conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon.

The Israeli military denied those accusations in Gaza, saying it is “unequivocally false".

Updated: October 19, 2023, 8:29 PM