New Delhi: Amid Israel’s continued airstrikes in Gaza following the dramatic land-sea-air assault by the Palestinian group Hamas, social media has been flooded with videos alleging the use of banned white phosphorus bombs by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the densely populated region.
Numerous photos, videos, and claims circulating on social media suggest that Israeli forces are employing white phosphorous against the civilian population of Gaza. The Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory under Israeli blockade, has been governed by Hamas for an extended period. It is one of the most densely populated areas globally, housing over two million people in a small 362-square-kilometer territory.
What Is White Phosphorus?
White phosphorus is a waxy, yellowish-to-clear chemical with a pungent, garlic-like odor. It is a highly flammable substance that burns rapidly and brightly upon exposure to air. Militaries worldwide, including the United States, use it in incendiary weapons for various purposes, such as illuminating targets at night or inflicting damage on adversaries.
When ignited, white phosphorus produces intense heat (around 815 degrees Celsius), light, and thick white smoke, which is employed by armed forces to create smokescreens in sensitive areas.
White phosphorus can spark fast-spreading and extensive ground fires. Once ignited, it proves challenging to extinguish as it adheres to various surfaces, including skin and clothing. It poses a significant danger to civilians, causing severe burns that can penetrate deep into tissues and bone, and it can reignite even after treatment.
Historical Examples of White Phosphorous Use in Conflicts
One of the earliest reported uses of white phosphorous in military conflicts dates back to the 1800s when Irish nationalists, known as Fenians, employed it against British forces, leading to its nickname “Fenian fire.”
The British military utilized white phosphorus in both World Wars, and U.S. forces used it against insurgents in the city of Fallujah after invading Iraq.
Israel, no stranger to such allegations, acknowledged using phosphorus shells during the battle against Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War. Several human rights organizations accused the IDF of using white phosphorous against civilians during the 2008-09 Gaza War, also known as Operation Cast Lead.
During the Syrian crisis, the Bashar Al-Assad-led Syrian government faced allegations from a significant portion of the international community regarding the use of chemical weapons, including white phosphorus.
More recently, the Russian Army has been accused of deploying white phosphorous bombs in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Banned by the United Nations
In 1972, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution categorizing incendiary weapons as a “category of arms viewed with horror.”
The UN defines incendiary weapons as “weapons or munitions designed to set fire to objects or cause burn or respiratory injury to people through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, resulting from a chemical reaction of a flammable substance such as napalm or white phosphorus.”
In 1980, a global consensus was reached to prohibit or limit the use of certain weapons causing excessive pain or harm to civilians. Protocol III of this agreement restricts the use of weapons that ignite fires.