White phosphorus – the overlooked war against infrastructure and environment in South Lebanon

Date: 27 February 2024

The price of Lebanese olive oil has jumped 50% from 2023, meaning that the traditional jerry can of oil, which many families stock up on annually, comes in at around 150 USD. There are several obvious factors behind this sudden surge, including the ongoing economic crisis that has gripped Lebanon since 2019 and this year’s meager olive yield following 2023’s rich harvest, a typical pattern for olive trees.

But another unforeseen factor contributed to the scarcity of olive oil and the subsequent price hike this year: the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Lebanese political party and militia Hezbollah. Since 8 October 2023, one day after the Hamas attack on Israel, daily air strikes have occurred between Israel and Hezbollah, with hostilities ceasing only during a one-week ceasefire in November. Hezbollah operates from South Lebanon, and Israel’s strikes, except for the assassination of Hamas leader Saleh Arouri, have been confined to South Lebanon.

The primary targets are Lebanese villages located near the Israeli border such as Naqoura, Ayta ash-Shab, Khiyam and Kfarshouba. Residents of these regions report that they were unable to harvest their olive trees this year due to the constant shelling but also because Israeli attacks, which used weapons containing white phosphorus, resulted in trees being burned down. Many residents of South Lebanon have not only lost the olive harvest for this year but also their olive trees, some of which are several decades old and now lie charred and destroyed. Beyond the immediate destruction of trees and nature, environmental experts are raising concerns about the long-term impact of white phosphorus residues in the soil and water.

A comprehensive assessment of the quantity of white phosphorus weapons deployed in the attacks, the exact extent of destruction, and particularly the enduring environmental and economic repercussions of the chemical residues can only be conducted once the conflict is over. Nevertheless, the adverse effects of white phosphorus have been observed in other war contexts, including in South Lebanon in 2006.

What is white phosphorus?

White phosphorus is a highly flammable chemical substance that ignites upon contact with oxygen, burning at temperatures as high as 800C (1,472F). It can cause third-degree burns when it comes in contact with human bodies and its volatility is exacerbated by the substance’s tendency to stick to the skin while burning. Moreover, a white phosphorus fire is unquenchable; it can be temporarily suppressed by water, but reignites when dried again, even after a considerable period of time.

The danger is further compounded when residues of the substance are found in nature as they can reignite upon exposure to oxygen. Even in the case of treated burn wounds, there is a risk of reigniting, when the dressing is removed, allowing oxygen to enter the wound. When aflame, white phosphorus develops a dense white fog that is extremely toxic when it comes into contact with the eyes, skin, or the respiratory tract.

Although white phosphorus is a chemical (although not a naturally occurring one) substance, weapons containing white phosphorus are not classified as chemical weapons but as incendiary weapons. In warfare, they are primarily used for illumination purposes, for marking military targets, or for the creation of a smokescreen. The underlying concept is that the substance combusts in the air and descends to the ground as ashes, therefore not causing any direct damage to people or the environment. Still, white phosphorus munitions have been intentionally used to target and harm civilians and military personnel, as witnessed for example, during the Vietnam War.

Moreover, white phosphorus has also caused fatalities, injuries, and destruction on occasions when it was ostensibly used to mark a target or create a smokescreen, particularly if the substance does not burn completely before reaching the ground. This is especially problematic in densely populated areas or areas near forests and fields. 

The use of white phosphorus as a weapon is regulated by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) that prohibits the use of incendiary weapons in areas with high “concentration of civilians”. The protocol, however, limits the definition of incendiary weapons as those primarily intended for setting people on fire, excluding those purportedly designed for purposes such as illumination. This creates ambiguity regarding the inclusion of weapons containing white phosphorus under this classification. For years, various human rights and environmental organizations have called for a reformulation of the CCW to limit or prohibit the use of white phosphorus. While Palestine signed the CCW in 2015 and Lebanon in 2017, Israel has not acceded to it as of today.


The use of white phosphorus weapons in South Lebanon 

In mid-October 2023, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing Israel’s use of white phosphorus weapons in Gaza and in Lebanon. The report emphasized that Gaza, in particular, is a densely populated area, making use of these weapons a violation of international humanitarian law. Israel had previously employed white phosphorus in both regions, notably during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon and the 2009 attacks on Gaza.

In response to internal and external pressure in 2013, the Israeli military had a commitment to limit the use of white phosphorus, using it only “as the need arises”. However, following the report of Human Rights Watch in October 2023, Israel denied allegations of using white phosphorus in Gaza. According to interviews conducted by AMWAJ with residents of South Lebanon, the region is reportedly subjected to almost daily attacks by the Israeli air force using white phosphorus. These attacks have resulted in significant damage to houses, infrastructure, and the region’s native and agricultural flora. Additionally, several civilians have reportedly sustained injuries.

Antoine al-Howayek, from the Association of Lebanese Farmers, highlighted the difference from the 2006 attacks, stating: “In 2006, the region was attacked with white phosphorus and many houses as well as the agricultural crop in the area were burnt down. But this time it is different   the weapons they are using are more developed. So, the quantity of white phosphorus that falls on our land is much larger, and therefore the destruction is much more severe.”

Video report produced by Karem Monzer for Beirut Today about the effects of white phosphorous munitions in southern Lebanon

On 24 October, the Lebanese environmental NGO “Green Southerners” issued a statement urging international organizations and the international community to apply pressure with the aim of compelling “the Israeli occupation forces to cease immediately their use of prohibited white phosphorus bombs on civilian and environmental sites in Lebanon. The statement emphasized the potential for a major environmental catastrophe if these Israeli violations persist and if there is continued silence surrounding them.” Approximately two months into the hostilities, the Ministry of Environment reported that Israel airstrikes had led to the destruction of approximately 462 hectares (4.6 million m²) of woodland in Lebanon. This significant damage was attributed particularly to the use of white phosphorus.

As of February 2024, the “Green Southerners” continue to document the majority of white phosphorus attacks in the region through their social media channels. Al-Howayek stated to AMWAJ: “We cannot assess the exact scope of the destruction yet; we have to wait until the war is over to conduct an accurate study”. For numerous residents of South Lebanon, the ongoing airstrikes and exposure to white phosphorus have forced them to evacuate their houses, seeking refuge in other parts of the country. Since October 2023, approximately 70,000 people have been displaced. Furthermore, farmers and agricultural workers have faced challenges in harvesting their crop, especially impacting the olive season in October and November 2023. The economic ramifications for many farmers – occurring amidst an unprecedented economic crisis   are immense.

In addition to the displacement and economic hardships, white phosphorus has wrought destruction on agricultural infrastructure and, as previously mentioned, on the trees themselves. Many of these trees are decades or even centuries old, often passed down through generations. Given the slow growth of olive trees, with some growing only about five centimeters per year, their burning constitutes a lasting and substantial setback for farmers, causing permanent damage to their agricultural activities and jeopardizing their livelihood.


Environmental consequences? 

In addition to the direct and immediate impacts, many experts express concern about the long-term environmental consequences of white phosphorus when it infiltrates the soil and groundwater.

Antoine al-Howayek told AMWAJ: “In 2006, the amount of white phosphorus fired was much less, and still, we could see its bad impact. The harvest from those fields that were attacked, was significantly reduced for many years afterward. This time, we are afraid of the long-term consequences. What will happen to the numerous rivers, aquifers, and to the flora and fauna in the region? Depending on how long the war will continue, these consequences will be devastating.”

The long-term environmental consequences of white phosphorus use have been documented since the early 1980s, notably in Alasca. During that period, American researchers recorded the annual deaths of thousands of waterfowl at Eagle River Flats, a salt marsh in Alasca. It was found that the marsh had been contaminated with white phosphorus used by the US army for training purposes in the area. Over several decades, the marsh underwent pumping and draining efforts multiple times before being declared decontaminated in the early 2000s.

In 2023, this issue gained additional attention in the coverage of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russia faced accusations of deploying white phosphorus weapons multiple times, including in densely populated civilian areas. Collaborate efforts by civil society, researchers, and the Ukrainian government extensively documented the environmental impact. The objective is twofold: to accuse Russia of environmental crimes at the international criminal court and to explore avenues for rehabilitation and compensation.

Youssef, a farmer in South Lebanon from the village of Houla, whose olive grove was destroyed in November 2023, discerns a deliberate pattern in the Israeli targeting of agricultural crops and trees: “They deploy white phosphorus bombs specifically in areas where we have our fields, groves, and crops, and also around forests. Their aim is to destroy not only our houses and infrastructure but also our environment our soils and rivers, the fundamental sources of our life in this region. We have demonstrated in the past that we can reconstruct our houses, streets and bridges. Rehabilitating our environment, however, will be a much more challenging endeavor.”

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