Why white phosphorus remains Israel's unconventional weapon of choice in war with Lebanon

Israel has been using the toxic shell against Lebanon since 1982

White phosphorus fired by Israeli army to create a smokescreen is seen on the Israel-Lebanon border in northern Israel. Reuters
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Patients still burning when they arrive at hospital, children disfigured by brutal burns and others suffering from a bad cough. These harrowing scenes, documented by many foreign journalists and Lebanese doctors, depict the aftermaths of Israel's massive use of white phosphorus on West Beirut in the summer of 1982.

Forty-one years later, villagers of Dhayra in Lebanon recounted to The National the dark evening” of October 16 when Israel bombed the small border town heavily with white phosphorus shells.

“There was white smoke everywhere, even hours later – if you put your fingers in front of your face, you could not see anything,” said Bassam Sweid, a resident of the small Bedouin town.

White phosphorus is a toxic chemical that can cause respiratory damage, organ failure when inhaled, and severe burns upon skin contact. It is highly flammable and can reignite when exposed to oxygen, even weeks later, causing massive fires and destroying land, civilian structures and crops.

There were no burn victims that night in the village but a dozen cases of suffocation required hospital treatment.

Doctor warns of complications due to white phosphorus inhalation

Doctor warns of complications due to white phosphorus inhalation

Among them was Mr Sweid. “I was breathing, but it felt as if there was no oxygen in the air; it was like this for at least 10 days,” he said.

Amnesty International has called for an investigation into war crimes related to Israel's use of white phosphorus in Dhayra.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Washington was “concerned” about the use of white phosphorus munitions after The Washington Post revealed the shells found in Dhayra were US-made.

Mr Kirby said the administration would be “asking questions to try to learn a bit more”.

The recent use of white phosphorus in Lebanon has triggered outrage and drawn condemnation from NGOs and Lebanese officials.

But Israel’s use of unconventional weapons is nothing new in the various wars that pitted the two nations across the years and white phosphorus has been repeatedly used in Lebanon since 1982.

More than 81 Israeli attacks

The first white phosphorus attack in Lebanon in the latest conflict was recorded on October 9.

This was a day after the border conflict at the Israel-Lebanon frontier erupted between Israel and Iran-back Hezbollah, whose stated goal is to support its ally Hamas and distract its sworn enemy, Israel, from its war on the Gaza Strip.

Israel admitted to using the chemical which is highly regulated under the Convention on Conventional Weapons. Its use is banned near civilian areas.

The Israeli army maintains it only uses white phosphorus to create smokescreens in a military context, dismissing accusations of targeting civilians or causing fires as “baseless”.

The National found fuming sticky black paste, characteristic of white phosphorus remnants, scattered around the courtyard and field. The residue reignited when it was stirred with a stick, emitting a characteristic tear gas-like smell. A canister was also found, marked clearly with “WP CANISTER”, in farmland.

Dhayra is not an isolated case in Lebanon; Israel has launched at least 81 attacks using white phosphorus in two months, in 34 locations, in which at least 17 civilians were injured, according to ACLED, a US NGO that tracks wars around the world.

Israel is also using the munition in its current offensive in Gaza, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented its first use in the blockaded strip in 2008-09.

From wars to wars

The first recorded use of white phosphorus in Lebanon dates back to the summer of 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon to drive the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) out of the country.

At that time, haunting scenes of a besieged West Beirut, cut off from electricity, water and food, and subjected to relentless shelling made international headlines.

Dr Amal Shamma, a paediatrician at Barbir Hospital, cited by veteran journalist Robert Fisk, reported seeing the corpses of babies burning for hours due to phosphorus. The New York Times quoted Dr Shamma saying she had received "pieces of people”, along with other doctors, who say they treated victims of cluster bomb injuries.

In July 1993, Israel initiated “Operation Accountability,” a week-long attack on South Lebanon aiming to pressure the Lebanese government to control Hezbollah.

Human Rights Watch, in its 1996 report Civilian Pawns, deemed evidence of the “illegal use of phosphorus by Israel against Lebanese civilians” during the offensive” as “compelling”.

The NGO relied on shell analysis and testimonies of doctors and civilian victims in southern Lebanon, including children with burns likely caused by phosphorus.

According to the report, Israel also deployed other controversial weapons in the 90s against populated areas in southern Lebanon including anti-personnel “flechette” – a pointed steel projectile packed into shells and fired by tanks.

While flechettes have not been banned, their use, especially in civilian areas, is highly controversial due to the wounds they inflict and their large “kill radius”.

Non-conventional Israeli weapons

In 2006, Israel faced mounting accusations from NGOs and Lebanese officials related to its use of non-conventional weapons during the July 2006 war, when it launched a large-scale war in Lebanon, after Hezbollah militants kidnapped two soldiers patrolling northern Israel.

In the months following the conflict, Israel acknowledged using white phosphorus, but it stressed it was in accordance with international law.

However, Lebanese officials, including then-president Emile Lahoud, argued that these munitions were used against civilians.

We could determine that unconventional weapons, including white phosphorus, were used based on the forensic report of corpses
Mustafa Jradi, doctor at Tyre Governmental Hospital

Mustafa Jradi, a doctor and administrative director at Tyre Governmental Hospital in South Lebanon in 2006, told The National his institution documented all medical cases with pictures, including injuries of the wounded and deceased.

“We could determine that unconventional weapons, including white phosphorus, were used based on the forensic report of corpses,” he said.

He said he saw “stiff corpses, indicative of significant fluid loss, with a dark colour and dry skin” – which he said is characteristic of phosphorus injuries.

“There were wounds that we had never seen before and could not explain, especially on children,” Ibrahim Abdel Latif Faraj, who was working as a surgeon in south Lebanon in 2006, told The National.

He said that foreign doctors and journalists suspected at the time they might have been caused by another unconventional weapon, Dense Inert Metal Explosive, an experimental type of explosive developed by the US military.

Cluster munitions, which release multiple smaller submunitions over a wide area, is another unconventional weapon widely used in 2006 by Israel. Right groups have denounced its indiscriminate nature.

Of the four million dropped during the Lebanon war's last days, an estimated one million failed to explode. Since then, Lebanon has cleared about 80 per cent of contaminated land, however, the unexploded munitions remain dangerous.

A farmer from Deir Mimas, a village in South Lebanon, told The National he found a shell a couple of months ago, stressing this continues to impede land access, 17 years later.

“We filed a complaint regarding unconventional weapons in 2006 to the UN,” Mr Jradi said, "with no success".

“It is like what is happening now in Gaza; Israel is violating international law with no accountability,” he added.

Updated: December 20, 2023, 12:47 PM