United Nations peacekeepers say they have received numerous complaints from people who believe Israeli troops are using white phosphorus in attacks along the border with Lebanon.
White phosphorus ignites when exposed to air, burning with an intense heat and releasing a stifling smoke. That makes it an attractive smokescreen for soldiers, although it is toxic and inhalation can cause serious health effects. In southern Lebanon, border residents and medical staff have in the past two weeks repeatedly accused Israel of deploying such munitions in civilian areas, where its use can constitute a violation of international treaties.
“This is something we are looking into, because we are getting a lot of reports,” said Andrea Tenenti, the chief of strategic communications for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL.
But a proper investigation would require a technical expertise that does not exist with UNIFIL at the moment, he said. Neither does UNIFIL currently have the mandate to look into whether Israel has used white phosphorus.
Those constraints underscore the difficulty of keeping the peace in a region on the brink of war between Israel and Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shia militant group backed by Iran.
That also means a key allegation against Israel is unlikely to be resolved soon, despite persistent reports of attacks harming civilians in a territory that offers greater latitude for an investigation than inside Gaza, which is under siege.
Israel has denied wrongdoing.
In the early days of its response to the Oct. 7 massacre by Islamic militants, the country’s military rejected accusations by human-rights groups that it used white phosphorus in Gaza. This week, the Israel Defense Forces said it is not unlawfully using white phosphorus in southern Lebanon.
“The main type of smokescreen shells used by the IDF do not contain white phosphorus,” the military said in an unsigned statement to The Globe and Mail. Israel does possess white phosphorus munitions. But the statement said military “procedures require that such shells are not used in densely populated areas, subject to certain exceptions.
“This complies and goes beyond the requirements of international law. The IDF does not use such shells for purposes of targeting or setting fire.”
The Israeli military made extensive use of white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008 and 2009, including firing such projectiles into civilian areas, a hospital and United Nations compounds. Condemned by a UN fact-finding mission, the military subsequently pledged to Israel’s High Court that it would use such weapons only in very rare circumstances.
In Lebanon, however, reports of white phosphorus have been frequent enough that UNIFIL has sought legal advice on whether it is possible to conduct a technical investigation.
The Canadian government said it is aware of such reports by human-rights organizations, but declined comment on whether it has raised this concern with Israel. “Canada expects all parties to the conflict to follow international humanitarian law,” Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Geneviève Tremblay said in a statement.
In interviews with The Globe and Mail in Lebanon, a half-dozen people described their experience with what they believe to be white phosphorus. They include border residents, a hospital doctor and a source close to the Lebanese Civil Defence, which operates an ambulance service.
They described an Oct. 16 attack on Dhayra, an agricultural border village just 10 kilometres from the UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura. The attack, said resident Jeanette Abou Samra, torched homes, melted the metal on cars and set vehicles on fire. “It burned everything,” she said.
“It’s really a war,” she added, accusing Israeli forces of seeking “to erase everything.”
Her father, Ahmad Abou Samra, described a cloud of smoke that descended on the village. His eyes burned. He covered his face with cloth, but it wasn’t enough. He began to retch. The smoke was so thick it was difficult to drive to safety.
They escaped with nothing but the clothes on their backs, but he experienced two days of vomiting and eye pain.
The Abou Samra family has now taken shelter in a school in Tyre with others who have fled border areas, including many from Dhayra. Among them is Samaher Sweid, who recounted urging her husband to return home to fetch clothing and other necessities during a lull in border clashes a few days after the attack. He refused.
So Ms. Sweid went herself.
Arriving home, she discovered a dead cat. Some dogs had also died.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says white phosphorus does not generally contaminate water or agricultural products.
But Ms. Sweid worries the effects will be long-lived. Dhayra’s farmers grow olives and tobacco, lemons, oranges and wheat. Who, she wonders, will buy those now?
“If we have peace again, we cannot drink our water at home because it’s been poisoned,” she said.
No one can confirm the exact nature of the smoke in Dhayra. But a person close to Lebanese Civil Defence blamed white phosphorus attacks for numerous fires, saying five paramedics have been injured. Two remained in hospital for two days. The Globe and Mail is not using the person’s name because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
Seven patients have been brought to the Lebanese Italian Hospital in Tyre, said Dr. Mohemmad Mostafa, an intensive-care specialist. Their symptoms were consistent with exposure to white phosphorus, and included sweating, vomiting, diarrhea and thirst. Some were initially unable to speak, “because of difficulty breathing,” he said.
“We started with steroids for bronchospasm, as we know there is no antidote for white phosphorus,” he said. He instructed patients to remove their clothing and shower for at least 20 minutes.
He has no way of knowing for certain what they were exposed to. But he is convinced it was white phosphorus. “You can smell it,” he said.
International law around the substance’s use is “not clear cut,” said Rachel Kerr, co-convener of the War Crimes Research Group at King’s College London. White phosphorus is not a prohibited chemical weapon, but it is restricted to ground-use operations by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, or CCW.
“Israel is not a signatory to the CCW so is not bound by it, unless one were to argue that it formed part of customary international law,” Prof. Kerr said.
It’s also possible to argue that the “use of these sorts of weapons contradicts the imperative to limit unnecessary suffering, which is at the heart of international humanitarian law,” Prof. Kerr said – but countries often dispute what constitutes “necessary.”
For the United Nations peacekeepers, meanwhile, tracking reports of white phosphorus allegations form part of a daily high-wire act for a force of 10,500 troops from 49 countries, one of the world’s longest-lived peacekeeping operations.
Since Oct. 7, skirmishes have extended along the 120-kilometre border between Israel and Lebanon. UNIFIL has tracked up to 70 severe incidents a day. The group’s force commander maintains regular contact with Lebanese political and military leadership, as well as high-ranking soldiers in Israel. (It does not have direct communication with Hezbollah.)
That can involve dispelling rumours between enemies – and more specific interventions, such as passing a message from one side to the other that if firing continues, a counterattack will be made on a certain area.
The number of peacekeepers present, and the number of countries they represent, demonstrate the “huge interest from everyone to keep this area safe,” Mr. Tenenti said.
But, he warned, “there is no stability” in south Lebanon at the moment. “The situation has been concerning because of fear of things escalating to the point that they could not be controlled any more.”
With a report from Geoffrey York in Jerusalem