Israeli white phosphorus rounds burst over densely populated Gaza City

An Israeli white phosphorus round (right) airbursts over densely populated Gaza City, Palestine on October 11, 2023.

(Photo: Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Israel Accused of 'Blatant War Crime' as HRW Confirms White Phosphorus Used in Gaza

"Any time that white phosphorus is used in crowded civilian areas, it poses a high risk of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering," said one Human Rights Watch official.

Human Rights Watch on Thursday said it has confirmed reports that Israeli military forces unleashed white phosphorus munitions during artillery attacks on targets in Lebanon and Gaza this week, including over a heavily populated civilian area of the besieged Palestinian strip—an apparent war crime.

HRW said it has interviewed witnesses and verified video footage shot in Lebanon and Gaza on Tuesday and Wednesday "showing multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza City port and two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border."

The HRW announcement came as Israeli forces continue to bombard Gaza from air, land, and sea in an assault that has killed more than 1,500 Palestinians, including at least 500 children, in retaliation for Hamas' surprise infiltration of Israel and killing of over 1,300 Israeli soldiers and civilians.

As HRW explained Thursday:

Upon contact, white phosphorus can burn people, thermally and chemically, down to the bone as it is highly soluble in fat and therefore in human flesh. White phosphorus fragments can exacerbate wounds even after treatment and can enter the bloodstream and cause multiple organ failure. Already dressed wounds can reignite when dressings are removed and the wounds are reexposed to oxygen. Even relatively minor burns are often fatal. For survivors, extensive scarring tightens muscle tissue and creates physical disabilities.

WP burns as hot as 1,500°F. Water does not extinguish it.

"Any time that white phosphorus is used in crowded civilian areas, it poses a high risk of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering," HRW Middle East and North Africa director Lama Fakih said in a statement. "White phosphorous is unlawfully indiscriminate when airburst in populated urban areas, where it can burn down houses and cause egregious harm to civilians."

"To avoid civilian harm, Israel should stop using white phosphorus in populated areas," Fakih added. "Parties to the conflict should be doing everything they can to spare civilians from further suffering."

HRW previously accused Israel of war crimes for using WP munitions in densely populated areas—including over a United Nations school—during the 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead invasion of Gaza. In response to a 2013 petition to Israel's High Court of Justice filed by human rights groups including HRW, the Israel Defense Forces said it would no longer use WP in populated areas, with "very narrow exceptions" that it would not disclose.

Other countries' militaries also use WP, most notably the United States, which fired the incendiary rounds during the 2004 battle for Fallujah and elsewhere in the so-called War on Terror.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia was condemned for allegedly firing U.S.-supplied WP munitions against Houthi rebels in Yemen. WP and other incendiary weapons have also been used by Syrian government and Russian forces fighting Islamic State and other militants during the Syrian civil war. Turkey has also been accused of firing WP rounds at Kurdish civilians in Syria.

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