The allegation comes after Israel retaliated with airstrikes following a deadly attack by Hamas that started Oct. 7, which has left roughly 1,300 dead in Israel and more than 1,400 Palestinians dead in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
“Any time that white phosphorus is used in crowded civilian areas, it poses a high risk of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“White phosphorous is unlawfully indiscriminate when airburst in populated urban areas, where it can burn down houses and cause egregious harm to civilians.”
Global News has not independently verified the allegations made by Human Rights Watch in its report, and the Washington Post on Friday reported the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has denied using white phosphorous in Gaza.
Reuters also said the IDF called the allegation “unequivocally false.”
White phosphorus is a “colorless-to-white waxy” substance, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state. It is dispersed using artillery shells, rockets or bombs, and can produce an intense amount of heat. The light, smoke and heat are often used in war zones to mask military operations and obscure the movement of troops.
White phosphorus munitions can legally be used on battlefields to make smoke screens, generate illumination, mark targets or burn bunkers and buildings, Reuters reported. Because it has legal uses, white phosphorus is not banned as a chemical weapon under international conventions.
It is incendiary and as the International Committee of the Red Cross says, “The use of such white phosphorous weapons against any military objective within concentrations of civilians is prohibited unless the military objective is clearly separated from the civilians.”
HRW said using this substance in Gaza, one of the most densely-populated regions in the world, “magnifies the risk to civilians and violates the international humanitarian law prohibition on putting civilians at unnecessary risk.”
The burns from white phosphorous can be so severe, human skin can be potentially burned down to the bone. People who come into contact with the substance can either develop infections and it can also cause respiratory damage and organ failure.
Human Rights Watch said they issued their statement after reviewing videos, allegedly taken in both Gaza and in Lebanon on Oct. 10 and 11, showing “multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus” over Gaza.
“Human Rights Watch reviewed the video and verified that it was taken in Gaza City’s port and identified that the munitions used in the strike were airburst 155mm white phosphorus artillery projectiles. Other videos posted to social media and verified by Human Rights Watch show the same location,” the group said in a press release.
The group also said it reviewed two other videos from locations near the Israel-Lebanon border, which it said also showed similar 155-mm artillery projectiles being used to deliver white phosphorous.
Is white phosphorous legal?
The question around the legality of white phosphorous is a complicated one.
Protocol III of the UN Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) prohibits “the use of weapons primarily designed to set fire to objects or cause burn injuries against civilians.”
Palestinian leaders and Lebanon have both joined Protocol III, while Israel has not ratified it. In 2009, the Israeli military told the top court that it would not use white phosphorous except in two narrow situations, which it only revealed to the judges.
Additionally, the protocol does not restrict the use of ground-launched incendiary weapons entirely. Its definition of incendiary weapons includes only weapons “primarily designed” to harm civilians.
White phosphorous, which is also often used as a smokescreen device, falls in a grey area given the chemical itself is not specifically banned under international law, the International Committee of the Red Cross says.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the international community to close the loopholes around the use of white phosphorous.
“To avoid civilian harm, Israel should stop using white phosphorus in populated areas,” Fakih said.
“Parties to the conflict should be doing everything they can to spare civilians from further suffering.”
— with files from Associated Press and Reuters