The Washington Post
December 11, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST
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DHEIRA, Lebanon — Israel used U.S.-supplied white phosphorus munitions in an October attack in southern Lebanon that injured at least nine civilians. A human rights organization should investigate it as a war crime, according to a Washington Post analysis of shell fragments found in a small village.
A reporter working for The Post found the remains of three 155-millimeter artillery shells fired at Dheira, near the Israeli border, that incinerated at least four homes, residents said. The shells, which eject wedges of felt saturated with white phosphorus that burn at high temperatures, produce smoke to obscure troop movements as they fall randomly over a wide area. Its contents can stick to the skin, causing potentially fatal burns and respiratory damage, and its use near civilian areas could be prohibited by international humanitarian law.
Of the nine injured in the Israeli attack on Dheira, at least three were hospitalized, including one for several days.
The batch production codes found on the shells match the nomenclature used by the U.S. Army to classify domestically produced munitions, which show they were manufactured by munitions depots in Louisiana and Arkansas in 1989 and 1992. The light green color and other markings, such as “WP” printed on one of the shells, correspond to white phosphorus cartridges, according to weapons experts.
M825 smoke rounds, fired from 155mm howitzers, have legitimate uses on the battlefield, including signaling friendly troops, marking targets, and producing white smoke that conceals soldiers from enemy forces.
The weapons are part of billions of dollars of U.S. military weapons flowing to Israel each year, fueling Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, launched after the militants’ Oct. 7 attack. At least 17,700 people, including many civilians. , have been killed since the start of the Israeli operation, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.
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Tensions along Lebanon’s southern border between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia, went from simmering to near-daily exchanges of fire in the weeks following October 7.
Dheira, a town of 2,000 inhabitants, has become a hotbed of fighting. Just across the border from an Israeli radar tower, it was used as a staging ground for Hezbollah attacks on Israel. At least 94 people have been killed on the Lebanese side of the border since tensions escalated, according to data released Dec. 5 by the Health Ministry – 82 were militants, according to Hezbollah. Additionally, at least 11 Israelis were killed, most of them soldiers.
Photos and videos verified by Amnesty International and reviewed by The Post show the characteristic ribbons of white phosphorus smoke falling over Dheira on October 16.
Israeli forces continued to bombard the town with white phosphorus munitions for hours, residents said, trapping them in their homes until they were able to escape around 7 a.m. the next morning. Residents are now calling the attack a “dark night.”
Most fled the city when the shelling stopped, returned during a week’s break in fighting, and left again when the shelling resumed.
Uday Abu Sari, a 29-year-old farmer, said in an interview that he was trapped in his home for five hours during the bombings and was unable to breathe because of the smoke. He suffered from breathing problems for several days after the attack.
“The emergency services told us to put something soaked in water on our face, which helped a little. I couldn’t see my finger in front of my face,” he said. “The whole village went white. »
White phosphorus ignites on contact with oxygen and burns at temperatures up to 1,500 degrees, which can cause serious injury. Chemicals left in the body can cause damage to internal organs, sometimes fatal, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
It is unclear why the Israeli army fired these shells in the evening, as the smoke would have little practical use at night and there were no Israeli troops on the Lebanese side of the border to guard against it. mask with smoke screens. Residents speculated that the phosphorus was intended to displace them from the village and pave the way for future Israeli military activities in the area.
In a statement, the Israeli military wrote that the white phosphorus shells fired by Israel are used to create smoke screens, not to target or cause fires. He said his use of the weapon “is consistent with and goes beyond the requirements of international law.”
Israeli forces have safer alternatives, such as M150 artillery shells, which produce screen smoke without using white phosphorus.
The American origin of the shells was verified by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The same manufacturing codes also appear on white phosphorus shells lined up next to Israeli artillery near the town of Sderot, near the Gaza Strip, in an October 9 photo.
The United States has an obligation to monitor the behavior of its partners and allies who receive its assistance in order to comply with American law, humanitarian law experts said. The use of white phosphorus is restricted under this international law because fire and smoke can spread to populated areas, rights groups say.
“The fact that Israel is using U.S.-produced white phosphorus in southern Lebanon should be of great concern to U.S. officials,” Tirana Hassan, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email. “(Congress) should take reports of Israel’s use of white phosphorus seriously enough to reevaluate U.S. military aid to Israel. »
The United States is not conducting real-time assessments of Israel’s compliance with the laws of war, Biden administration officials said.
A U.S. defense official said he was aware of reports about the attack, described in part by Amnesty International, that concluded the incident should be investigated as a war crime.
The Pentagon requires partner militaries to recognize their obligations under international law when accepting U.S. weapons, “including that such munitions must only be used for lawful purposes such as signaling and filtering smoke,” said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“We take reports of its illegal use seriously,” the official said. “We continue to emphasize the importance of respecting international humanitarian law, both publicly and privately, in our conversations with our Israeli partners. »
It is unclear when exactly the United States delivered the munitions to Israel. The official said no white phosphorus munitions had been supplied since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
White phosphorus fell on several homes and started fires, incinerating furniture and stripping appliances down to the burned metal. Remnants of the black, sticky chemical littered the ground 40 days after the attack and caught fire when locals kicked it.
In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented Israel’s use of U.S.-made white phosphorous munitions, in violation of international law, during its 22-day offensive in Gaza. At least one of the shells found by The Post in Dheira came from the same batch of white phosphorus used by Israel in 2009, according to batch production codes.
In 2013, the Israeli military pledged to stop using white phosphorous on the battlefield, saying it would switch to gas-based smoke rounds.
Israel has used the munitions more than 60 times in Lebanon’s border areas in the past two months, according to data collected by ACLED, a group that monitors war zones. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on December 2 that Israel’s use of these munitions had “killed civilians and caused irreversible damage to more than 5 million square meters of forests and agricultural land, in addition to damaging thousands of olive trees.
Mohamad El Chamaa in Beirut contributed to this report.
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