White Phosphorus: Controversy in Conflict Zones

Accusations have surfaced regarding Israel’s alleged deployment of white phosphorus in military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. Global human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have raised concerns about the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) employing white phosphorus munitions in these areas, potentially violating International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which outlines the responsibilities of states and non-state entities in armed conflicts.

Citing eyewitness testimonies and video evidence, these organizations contend that Israel’s use of such chemical substance in densely populated regions poses severe and enduring risks to civilians. The IDF, however, has refuted these allegations.

EARLY ADMISSION

It is a highly flammable substance dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets. When exposed to oxygen, it ignites, producing intense heat and thick, illuminating smoke. It can cause severe burns, often down to the bone.

Israel has admitted to employing munitions containing such substances phosphorus during the 2008-2009 conflict in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead. The Israeli military maintained that its actions did not contravene legal obligations.

Amnesty International has reported verifying videos depicting white phosphorus artillery shells fired by the Israeli army into civilian areas in Gaza. Notably, this is not categorized as a chemical weapon. It is used in smoke screens, illumination, and incendiary munitions and frequently serves as the burning component in tracer ammunition.

In 2013, Israel’s military announced its intention to phase out white phosphorus smokescreen munitions used during the 2008-2009 offensives in Gaza, which had drawn accusations of war crimes from several rights groups. However, it did not clarify whether it would also reconsider the use of such chemical weapons, designed to incinerate enemy positions.

SMOKE SCREENS

White phosphorus munitions are legally deployable on battlefields for creating smoke screens, generating illumination, marking targets, or burning bunkers and structures. While this type of weapon is not banned as a chemical weapon under international conventions due to its legitimate uses, it can inflict severe burns and ignite fires.

Under Protocol III of the Convention on the Prohibition of Use of Certain Conventional Weapons, white phosphorus is considered an incendiary weapon. This protocol prohibits the use of incendiary weapons against military targets situated among civilian populations, although Israel has not ratified it and is not bound by its provisions.

A FIERY SUBSTANCE IN CONFLICT

White phosphorus is a pyrophoric substance that ignites upon exposure to oxygen, producing dense smoke and intense heat reaching temperatures of 815 degrees Celsius. Pyrophoric materials spontaneously ignite or catch fire very rapidly (within five minutes) when in contact with air. According to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, which standardizes chemical hazard classification, white phosphorus falls under “Pyrophoric solids, category 1,” indicating its ability to catch fire spontaneously when exposed to air. It ranks among the most unstable pyrophoric substances.

White phosphorus emits a distinctive door reminiscent of garlic.

MILITARY APPLICATIONS OF WHITE PHOSPHORUS

White phosphorus is dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets. It can also be delivered through fabric (textile) wedges soaked in the chemical.

Its primary military application is as a smokescreen, serving to obscure troop movements on the ground. The smoke acts as a visual obscurant and can disrupt infrared optics and weapons tracking systems, thus safeguarding forces against guided missiles. White phosphorus munitions can either burst on the ground for concentrated smoke or burst in the air to cover a larger area.

Additionally, white phosphorus can be employed as an incendiary weapon. According to Human Rights Watch, U.S. forces used white phosphorus munitions during the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004 to compel concealed combatants to abandon their positions.

HARMFUL EFFECTS OF WHITE PHOSPHORUS

Exposure to white phosphorus can lead to severe burns, often reaching the bone. These burns are excruciatingly painful, slow to heal, and prone to infections. Particles of white phosphorus lodged in the body can reignite upon contact with air. Even burns covering just 10 percent of the body can be fatal, according to Human Rights Watch. Inhaling white phosphorus particles or smoke can result in respiratory damage and harm to internal organs. Survivors of such injuries often endure a lifetime of suffering, including impaired mobility and painful, disfiguring scars. It can also cause significant damage to infrastructure, property, crops, and livestock, with the potential for raging fires, particularly in windy conditions.

HISTORICAL USE

White phosphorus munitions first made their appearance when Irish nationalists in the late 19th century utilized a formulation that became known as “Fenian fire” (Fenian being a term for Irish nationalists). During World War I, British and Commonwealth forces extensively employed the chemical in phosphorus grenades, bombs, shells, and rockets.

Since then, these munitions have been used in conflicts worldwide, from the Normandy invasion in World War II to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2004 and the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Notably, Russia faced accusations of using these bombs during its invasion of Ukraine in the previous year.

LEGAL STATUS

These munitions are not subject to a comprehensive ban but are regulated under International Humanitarian Law. They are not classified as chemical weapons because their primary utility derives from heat and smoke rather than toxicity. Consequently, the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), specifically Protocol III, which addresses incendiary weapons, governs their use. Palestine and Lebanon are signatories to Protocol III, whereas Israel has not ratified it. Although Protocol III restricts certain uses of ground-launched incendiary weapons where concentrations of civilians are present, it includes two significant loopholes. It does not cover all uses of ground-launched incendiary weapons in civilian-concentrated areas, and the protocol’s definition of incendiary weapons may not encompass multipurpose munitions, such as those containing white phosphorus, which are primarily regarded as “smoking” agents rather than those designed to set fire to and burn people.

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