This article was last updated on October 16, 2023
The Indiscriminate Use of White Phosphorus – A War Crime?
Remember this from back in May 2023?
My, what a stir that caused in the world’s media. Back then, the use of white phosphorus in civilian areas was considered a “war crime” by the BBC. Bad, bad Russia.
Well, it looks like it’s happening again but this time, it’s new players getting in on the white phosphorus act.
According to Human Rights Watch, this is what’s currently happening in the Middle East:
Apparently, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has determined that verified video and witness accounts show that Israel has used white phosphorus in military operations on both October 10th and 11th in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip respectively.
Here is a collection of videos showing the recent use of white phosphorus against Israel’s neighbours:
As background, when white phosphorus is deployed in military operations, it is contained in artillery shells, bombs and rockets. It ignites when it is exposed to oxgen, burning at more than 800 degrees Celsius (1500 degrees Fahrenheit), creating a thick white smoke. It can ignite anything that it comes into contact with including fuel, ammunition, structures and, most concerningly, human flesh. Even small fragments have the capability of burning human flesh right the bone. Tiny fragments can also lodge in the flesh and spontaneously burst into flames at a later time. It can also be absorbed through inhalation, severely damaging the lungs, liver, kidneys and heart.
Here is a video backgrounder on white phosphorus weapons:
While not for the faint of heart, here are some photos of rather horrifying white phosphorus burns from an article in the Lancet:
…and from the Biomedcentral website:
Here is a FAQ sheet from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry about white phosphorus:
White phosphorus has two uses in military operations:
1.) as an incendiary weapon.
2.) to create a smokescreen to hide military movements.
Since military operations use white phosphorus as a smokescreen, its use is not always forbidden by international law because military and political leaders can claim that it was not being used as an incendiary weapon.
White phosphorus can be either groundburst or airburst; when it is deployed in an airburst fashion, it covers a larger area, however, its incendiary effects spread over densely populated areas far beyond where the munitions were deployed.
According to the United Nations Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects, the United Nations aimed at banning or restricting the use of certain types of weapons that could be considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to either combatants or which indiscriminately affect civilian populations. Protocol III aka the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the use of Incendiary Weapons of the Convention restricts the use of incendiary weapons which are designed to set fire to objects or cause burn or respiratory injury to people:
Included in these prohibited weapons are both napalm, heavily used by the United States during the Vietnam War, and white phosphorus.
In total, 50 nations have signed the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects and there are 127 parties that have approved, accepted, acceded to, succeeded to or ratified the Convention. Israel approved the Convention on Marcy 22, 1995 but has not signed it and has added the following declarations:
Israel as also stated that it does not consent to be bound by Protocol 3, the aforementioned ban on the use of incendiary weapons. In contrast, both the Russian Federation and the United States have both signed and ratified the Convention as a whole.
Israel’s historical use of white phosphorus suggests that it is part of Israel’s plan to subjugate its Palestinian neighbours as shown in this 2009 analysis, also from Human Rights Watch:
Here is a quote from the 2009 HRW report with my bolds:
“This report documents Israel’s extensive use of white phosphorus munitions during its 22-day military operations in Gaza, from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009, named Operation Cast Lead. Based on in-depth investigations in Gaza, the report concludes that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) repeatedly exploded white phosphorus munitions in the air over populated areas, killing and injuring civilians, and damaging civilian structures, including a school, a market, a humanitarian aid warehouse and a hospital.
White phosphorus munitions did not kill the most civilians in Gaza – many more died from missiles, bombs, heavy artillery, tank shells, and small arms fire – but their use in densely populated neighborhoods, including downtown Gaza City, violated international humanitarian law (the laws of war), which requires taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm and prohibits indiscriminate attacks.
The unlawful use of white phosphorus was neither incidental nor accidental. It was repeated over time and in different locations, with the IDF “air-bursting” the munition in populated areas up to the last days of its military operation. Even if intended as an obscurant rather than as a weapon, the IDF’s repeated firing of air-burst white phosphorus shells from 155mm artillery into densely populated areas was indiscriminate and indicates the commission of war crimes.”
In any case, Israel’s use of white phosphorus for any purpose in the extremely densely populated Gaza Strip can only be described as a cruel punishment against those whose only crime is to live in Gaza. History does appear to show that white phosphorus is one of Israel’s weapons of choice even though its use as an incendiary weapon is prohibited by Protocol III of the U.N. Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects, a key part of the convention that Israel cleverly chose to not sign.
Apparently, using white phosphorus during a military conflict is only a war crime when it’s Russia using it.