Israel accused of using white phosphorus in Lebanon as potential for all-out war ratchets up

The potential for all-out war between Israel and Lebanon seems to have dramatically moved up a notch – or more – over the past few days.

And the Israeli prime minister has done nothing to dissuade that notion – telling his troops on the northern border with Lebanon on Wednesday that they are prepared for “very strong action” inside Lebanon.

“Yesterday the land was burning here,” Benjamin Netanyahu said in Kiryat Shmona to his audience of soldiers and emergency workers.

“I’m glad you put it out, but the ground was also on fire in Lebanon. Whoever thinks that he will hurt us and we will sit idly by is making a big mistake. We are prepared for a very strong action in the north. One way or another we will restore security to the north.”

Benjamin Netanyahu visits Kiryat Shmona after fires in the area
Benjamin Netanyahu visits Kiryat Shmona after fires in the area

His words follow days of escalation in the cross-border attacks between the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah fighters.

There have been large fires in several areas in northern Israel after rockets fired by Hezbollah – and claims of white phosphorus being used by the Israelis on Lebanese towns in the same period.

And both the Israeli and Arab media have been awash with worries and dire warnings about the possibility of all-out war on the Lebanese front.

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There are multiple reports of serious diplomatic warnings from several Western envoys about an imminent Israeli attack on Lebanon. “Prepare for war,” one is thought to have told the Lebanese authorities.

The Israeli prime minister is not the only one to be engaging in increasingly tough rhetoric.

A man uses a hose to put out fires near Kiryat Shmona after rocket attacks from Lebanon. Pic: Reuters
A man uses a hose to put out fires near Kiryat Shmona after rocket attacks from Lebanon. Pic: Reuters

His war cabinet met on Tuesday night amid a video message from his security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir who called for war, saying: “Now the IDF’s job is to destroy Hezbollah.”

He added: “They’re burning us here. All Hezbollah strongholds should be burned, they should be destroyed. War!”

The Times of Israel also reported the IDF chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi as saying that Israel is close to making a decision about how to deal with Hezbollah’s daily attacks on the northern border and insisted his soldiers were trained and prepared for an operation across the border.

The spike in cross-border tension comes as the global human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) released the findings of an investigation saying Israel’s widespread use of white phosphorus in southern Lebanon was “putting civilians at grave risk and contributing to civilian displacement”.

The HRW report verified the use of white phosphorus munitions by Israeli forces in at least 17 municipalities across south Lebanon after focussing on the weeks and months immediately after the Hamas attack inside Israel on 7 October.

It included five municipalities where airburst munitions were unlawfully used over populated residential areas, HRW says.

Israel has been accused of using white phosphorus against Lebanon

The HRW investigation states: “Under international humanitarian law, the use of airburst white phosphorus is unlawfully indiscriminate in populated areas and otherwise does not meet the legal requirement to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm.”

In an interview from Beirut, HRW researcher Ramzi Kaiss told Sky News that Israel should immediately stop its use of white phosphorus in populated residential areas and warned its allies: “This documentation should raise the alarm with States that are providing arms to Israel because there is a real risk they are being used in violation of international law – either in Gaza or Lebanon.”

Our team’s own inquiries carried out over several trips to Lebanon and spread over several months back up HRW’s investigations.

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We visited a number of border towns and communities in south Lebanon, travelled along the border with UN peacekeepers and visited camps of displaced families and farmers who had fled their homes on the border.

Several people spoke to us about the use of what they believed to be white phosphorus.

One displaced farmer called Mustafa Hijazi told us: “When the phosphorous is fired it drops something like powder, it sprays something which looked yellow and it has a bad smell… all our land in the south is affected by it. In the beginning of the war they [Israelis] dropped a lot of this phosphorus.”

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Displaced farmer Mustafa Hijazi
Displaced farmer Mustafa Hijazi

On another visit to southern border towns, we found residents who did not want to be identified in Kefar Kela who showed us pictures from an attack the night before we arrived.

The images captured on their mobile phones looked very much like white phosphorus being fired from Israel.

Suspected white phosphorus
Suspected white phosphorus

One resident told us the villagers believed the Israelis were using it to force the communities to leave the area as well as destroy their farming land.

“They’re trying to suffocate us, start fires, and burn all our land,” he said. “Why do they want to hit us? Why do they want to hit a civilian area? Are they even allowed to hit civilian areas?”

On an escorted trip with UN peacekeepers, we witnessed large swathes of burned land ourselves… trees burned through right to the canopy but we were unable to verify on an accompanied trip through volatile areas just who or what had started the fires.

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When we contacted the IDF about our findings and those of Human Rights Watch, a spokesperson vehemently denied the illegal use of white phosphorus.

The statement sent to us said: “The primary smoke-screen shells used by the IDF do not contain white phosphorus. Like many Western militaries, the IDF also possess smoke-screen shells that include white phosphorus that are legal under international law.

“These shells are used by the IDF for creating smoke screens and not for targeting or causing fires and are not defined under law as incendiary weapons.

“IDF procedures require that such shells are not used in densely populated areas, subject to certain exceptions. This complies and goes beyond the requirements of international law.”

Alex was reporting with cameraman Jake Britton, specialist producer Chris Cunningham and Lebanon producer Jihad Junaid

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