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Lebanon: Israel has shelled border towns with white phosphorous - new evidence

An Israeli army soldier adjusts the tip to a 155mm artillery shell near a self-propelled howitzer deployed at a position near the border with Lebanon © Jalaa MAREY / AFP

Attack on town of Dhayra on 16 October must be investigated as a war crime

Residents report extensive use of white phosphorous, causing injuries and widespread fires 

‘The Israeli army must immediately halt the use of white phosphorus’- Aya Majzoub

The Israeli army fired artillery shells containing white phosphorus in military operations along Lebanon’s southern border between10 and 16 October, Amnesty International said today following an investigation. 

One attack on the southern border town of Dhayra on 16 was clearly indiscriminate, and injured at least nine civilians, and should be investigated as a war crime.

Compelling evidence gathered by Amnesty also indicates the use of white phosphorus in two other incidents between 10 and 16 October - in the border towns al-Mari and Aita al-Chaab, with Amnesty verifying videos and photos of these attacks.

Cross-border hostilities in southern Lebanon have escalated significantly in recent weeks, with Israeli shelling killing at least four civilians and 48 members of the Hezbollah armed group.

Hezbollah and other armed groups have also fired rockets at northern Israel, killing six Israeli soldiers and one Israeli civilian, according to the Israeli army. Amnesty is investigating attacks by Hezbollah and other groups on northern Israel to determine whether they also violated international humanitarian law as well. 

The use of white phosphorus is restricted under international humanitarian law. Although its use can be lawful, it must never be fired at - or in close proximity to - a populated civilian area or civilian infrastructure, due to the high likelihood that the fires and smoke it causes will spread. Such attacks, which fail to distinguish between civilians and civilian objects and fighters and military objectives, are indiscriminate and thus prohibited. 

White phosphorus is a highly flammable substance mostly used to create a dense smoke-screen or mark targets. When exposed to air, it burns at extremely high temperatures and often starts fires where deployed. People exposed to white phosphorus can suffer respiratory damage, organ failure and other horrific and life-changing injuries, including burns that are extremely difficult to treat and cannot be extinguished with water. 

Aya Majzoub, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said:

“It is beyond horrific that the Israeli army has indiscriminately used white phosphorous in violation of international humanitarian law. 

“The unlawful use of white phosphorus in Lebanon in the town of Dhayra on 16 October has seriously endangered the lives of civilians, many of whom were hospitalised and displaced, and whose homes and cars caught fire.

“With concern growing about an intensification of hostilities in southern Lebanon, the Israeli army must immediately halt the use of white phosphorus, especially in populated areas, in line with its forgotten 2013 pledge to stop using these weapons.”

Use of white phosphorus in Dhayra

Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab verified videos and photos showing the use of white phosphorous smoke artillery shells in Dhayra on 16 October. Amnesty researchers interviewed the Mayor of Dhayra, a resident of Dhayra, a member of the emergency services who facilitated the transfer of injured civilians to a nearby hospital, and an emergency doctor working in the hospital which received the injured civilians.

Doctor Haitham Nisr, an emergency doctor at the Lebanese Italian hospital, told Amnesty that on 16 and 17 October medical teams treated nine people from the towns of Dhayra, Yarine and Marwahin who were suffering from shortness of breath and coughing, which he said was due to inhaling white phosphorus. Most patients were discharged from the hospital on the same day. 

The Regional Director of the Lebanese Civil Defence, Ali Safieddine, who facilitated the transfer of injured civilians to the hospital on 16 October and the subsequent evacuation of the town on 17 October, told Amnesty that the Civil Defence received calls for help from residents who reported “bombs that are producing extremely bad odour and causing suffocation once inhaled … Four members of our staff as well as a number of people living in Dhayra were admitted to a hospital for suffocation in the past few days.”

“We were not able to see even our own hands due to the heavy white smoke that covered the town all night long and lasted till this morning [17 October],” Ali Saffiedine told Amnesty. This description is consistent with white phosphorus, which produces a dense white smoke and a garlic-like odour. 

According to the Mayor of Dhayra, Abdullah al-Ghrayyeb, the shelling of the area, including with white phosphorus, started around 4:00pm local time on 16 October and continued into the night.

Abdullah al-Ghrayyeb told Amnesty:

“A very bad odour and massive cloud covered the town so that we were not able to see beyond five or six metres in front of us. This caused people to frantically flee their homes. And when some returned two days later, their houses were still burning. Cars caught fire. Land areas were also burnt down. Until today, you find remnants - the size of a fist - that reignite when exposed to air.” 

Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab analysed a video showing a crusted-over white phosphorus felt wedge reigniting in a resident’s backyard when poked with a stone. According to al-Ghrayyeb, the resident took the video on 25 October, nine days after Dhayra was shelled with white phosphorus. White phosphorus can reignite when exposed to oxygen, even weeks after being deployed.

Additionally, Amnesty verified a video from Dhayra dated 13 October, showing artillery-dispersed smoke plumes consistent with white phosphorus munitions. It also analysed footage filmed by a journalist on 10 October in Dhayra, seeming to show the release of white phosphorus igniting following contact with air. 

Use of white phosphorus in Aita al-Chaab and al-Mari

Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab also verified footage showing the shelling of the border town of Aita al-Chaab and near the town of al-Mari in southern Lebanon. 

Two videos verified by the lab team filmed on 10 October around al-Mari show ignited felt wedges descending to the ground and causing widespread fires, almost certainly indicating the use of white phosphorus. Amnesty also verified one video and five photos showing the shelling of Aita al-Chaab on 15 October, which very likely show the use of a mixture of white phosphorus rounds and standard high-explosive artillery projectiles. 

White phosphorus shells at Israel-Lebanon border

Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab verified photos taken by AFP photographers on 18 October near the Lebanese border. These photos show 155mm white phosphorus smoke ammunition shells lined up for use next to Israeli army M109 howitzers. These shells are a distinctive pale green colour with red and yellow bands, as well as visible markings reading M825A1 and D528, respectively the shell’s nomenclature and the US Department of Defense Identification Code for white phosphorus-based ammunition, as already documented by Amnesty near the Gaza fence. While these are US codes and identificatiions, Amnesty cannot confirm where these shells have been manufactured.

International law

White phosphorus is not considered a chemical weapon because it operates primarily by heat and flame rather than toxicity, making it an incendiary (highly combustible) weapon. Its use is governed by Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons. Lebanon acceded to the protocol in 2017, but Israel has not. Protocol III prohibits the use of airdropped incendiary weapons in “concentrations of civilians,” and limits the lawful use of ground-launched incendiary weapons - such as the artillery documented here - where there are concentrations of civilians. The protocol defines incendiary weapons as ones “primarily designed” to set fires and burn people, excluding uses of incendiary weapons for other purposes, including as smokescreens. 

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