Hundreds of hectares of Lebanon's farmland destroyed by Israeli white phosphorus

Officials and NGOs have denounced what appears to be a deliberate strategy to devastate land

Burnt land after Israeli strikes between Alma Alchaab and Naqoura. Photo: Green Southerners
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

“It is an ecocide,” said Hisham Younes, the head of Green Southerns, a grassroots NGO sounding the alarms about the devastating environmental effects of Israeli air strikes on Lebanon.

The Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture said that since October 8, 328 fires have been recorded in 52 towns in the area due to Israeli shelling.

Of the affected areas, 60 per cent is woodland, 25 per cent is agricultural land, and 15 per cent is fruit and olive trees, which have suffered substantial damage, with about 45,000 trees burnt.

The fires are primarily attributed to the use of white phosphorus, a toxic substance that can be used as an incendiary weapon. It can reignite when exposed to oxygen weeks after being used.

Israel's deliberate bombardment of woodlands, olive groves, and fruit tree orchards, particularly citrus has led to significant environmental damage
Hisham Younes, Head of Green Southerns

“Israel's deliberate bombardment of woodlands, olive groves, and fruit tree orchards, particularly citrus has led to significant environmental damage,” Mr Younes said.

About 462 hectares of land have been burnt, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of Environment Nasser Yassin said on X, formerly Twitter.

Livestock have also been affected, with 150,000 chickens and 620 sheep at risk. Apiculture is also at risk with about 150 beehives destroyed.

Human rights groups and the Lebanese government have accused Israel of using chemical substances to cause long-lasting damage to the environment.

Tactics include “scorching old forests with a unique system, reducing biodiversity, causing soil erosion, and an increased risk of soil and water contamination with phosphoric acids,” Mr Younes said.

Wildlife is also at risk, he told The National.

Mr Younes says recovery will require site-specific assessment – a task currently impossible given the continuing hostilities.

Iran-backed Hezbollah has engaged in hostilities with Israel in support of their ally Hamas,

The situation has been aggravated due to the difficulties facing firefighters in accessing the affected sites. “We send reinforcements to the south every day, but sometimes the army doesn't allow them to reach the fires for security reasons,” said a source within the Lebanese civil defence.

Several Lebanese firefighters have been injured in Israeli shelling.

“It is something you only see in wars,” the source added.

Turning the environment into a weapon

In addition to the immediate consequences of wildfires, experts warned of long-term effects.

Abbas Baalbaki, an environmental researcher at the American University of Beirut and activist at Green Southerners, said that although white phosphorus itself is very reactive and should not last long in the environment, its by-products could be “highly toxic and persistent”.

“Such by-products could be carried by water to contaminate perennial water bodies – the main water sources for animals in the area, which are highly susceptible to toxicity,” he said.

The chemical substances could move up the food chain accumulating in greater concentrations, he explained.

Mr Baalbaki warned that the long-term effect on human health of chemicals in the food supply could result in “birth defects, cellular toxicity causing anaemia and blood-related diseases”.

Mr Baalbaki said the Israeli strategy was “turning the environment into a weapon” when Israel invaded South Lebanon in the middle of the civil war (1975-1990) and the 2006 war.

During the 34-day conflict which pitted Israel against Hezbollah, Israel deployed 90 per cent of its cluster munitions in the final 72 hours, just as a ceasefire was on the horizon, according to the UN.

“The Israelis have long employed a strategy to make the land inhospitable. Their targets are not military objectives; instead, they destroy centuries-old olive trees, which have been preserved for generations,” Mr Baalbaki said.

“They understand that by targeting the ecosystem, they break the profound ties between the people and their ancestral land. People do not want to live in a wasteland, so they end up leaving: It is Israel's strategy of militarising the environment,” he added.

On October 31, caretaker Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah Bou Habib, instructed the Lebanese delegation to the UN to submit a complaint to the UN Security Council over Israel's use of white phosphorus.

While white phosphorus can be legally used on battlefields for creating smoke screens to conceal movement, its use against civilians is prohibited by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. However, Israel is not a signatory.

For the Lebanese government, the use of the munition was to target civilians.

“It is an intentional strategy conducted by the Israeli enemy to burn our soil and prevent us from using it in the future. This is an international crime,” Abdallah Nasserddin, the adviser to the Minister of Agriculture, told The National.

Israel has denied the allegations, telling The National that there “are visual similarities between smokescreen shells that contain white phosphorus and those that do not”.

“It is important to exercise caution before establishing factual determinations regarding photographs (the location and origins of which cannot be determined). As mentioned, the smokescreen shells containing white phosphorus … are not intended or used for setting fire, and any claim that these shells are used for that cause is baseless,” the Israeli army added.

'Everyone in the south is a farmer'

In an area where residents are heavily reliant on agriculture, the fires and shelling have also put residents at financial risk.

“More than 80 per cent of the fields have been burnt here, especially the olive trees, it will take years to recover” Nimr Atta, a resident of Alma el-Chaab, told The National.

“Almost everyone in south Lebanon is a farmer: in our village, each has at least a small plot of a few hectares with olives, lemon trees, oranges, avocado, peaches, mangoes,” he said.

Alma el-Chaab, located a few hundred metres from the border, is one of the southern border towns most affected by wildfires, alongside Kfarchouba, Chebaa, Aita ach-Chab, Rmeich, and Dhayra, where the use of white phosphorus has been reported.

Mr Atta said that his brother was in hospital for three days due to inhaling toxic fumes after shells reportedly containing white phosphorus hit his house.

The village, which once had a population of about 2,000 now has 81 residents.

“The majority are either too poor or too old and have nowhere to go. Some people simply have no choice.”

Mr Atta said that he is staying to take care of his 850-acre land, which has, so far, not been destroyed. Yet, he said he lost between $60,000 and $100,000 because the majority of workers had fled.

“The issue is that we are unable to plant, and as a result, we may lose the entire winter harvest, which is crucial for people's livelihoods,” explained Joseph Salameh, the mayor of Qlayaa. Located a few kilometres further north, the town has not been hit by white phosphorus but occasionally experiences fires due to the shelling.

“The economic situation is very bad, no one is able to work right now,” he said.

Lebanon is grappling with one of the worst financial crises in modern history with about 80 per cent of the population living in poverty.

Updated: November 15, 2023, 7:10 PM