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Israel used U.S.-supplied white phosphorus in Lebanon attack

Image: Remnants of a U.S.-produced white phosphorous smoke round found in Dheira, Lebanon. (William Christou for the Washington Post)

By William Christou, Alex Horton and Meg Kelly.

DHEIRA, Lebanon (washingtonpost.com) — Israel used U.S.-supplied white phosphorus munitions in an October attack in southern Lebanon that injured at least nine civilians in what a rights group says should be investigated as a war crime, according to a Washington Post analysis of shell fragments found in a small village.

A journalist working for The Post found remnants of three 155-millimeter artillery rounds fired into Dheira, near the border of Israel, which incinerated at least four homes, residents said. The rounds, which eject felt wedges saturated with white phosphorous that burns at high temperatures, produce billowing smoke to obscure troop movements as it falls haphazardly over a wide area. Its contents can stick to skin, causing potentially fatal burns and respiratory damage, and its use near civilian areas could be prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Of the nine injured in Israel’s attack on Dheira, at least three were hospitalized, one for days.

Lot production codes found on the shells match the nomenclature used by the U.S. military to categorize domestically produced munitions, which show they were made by ammunition depots in Louisiana and Arkansas in 1989 and 1992. The light green color and other markings — like “WP” printed on one of the remnants — are consistent with white phosphorous rounds, according to arms experts.

Left: One of two remnants of white phosphorous smoke rounds found in Dheira. Their lot production codes begin with “PB-92,” which denotes production in Pine Bluff, Ark., in 1992. Right: A third remnant found in Dheira is printed with “THS-89,” which denotes production in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace at a Louisiana plant. (William Christou for The Washington Post)

The M825 smoke rounds, fired from 155mm howitzers, have legitimate use on the battlefield, including signaling friendly troops, marking targets and producing white smoke that conceals soldiers from the eyes of enemy forces. The rounds are not intended for use as incendiary weapons.

The weapons are part of billions of dollars in U.S. military arms that flow to Israel every year, which has fueled Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, launched after the militants attacked on Oct. 7. At least 17,700 people, many of them civilians, have been killed since the Israeli operation began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

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Tensions along Lebanon’s southern border between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia, have boiled over from a simmer to near-daily exchanges of fire in the weeks since Oct. 7.

Dheira, a town of 2,000, has become a focal point for fighting. Just across the border from an Israeli radar tower, it has been used as a staging ground for Hezbollah’s attacks against Israel. At least 94 people have been killed on the Lebanese side of the border since tensions escalated, according to data released on Dec. 5 by the Health Ministry — 82 have been militants, according to Hezbollah. In addition, at least 11 Israelis have been 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 Oct. 16.

Apparent white phosphorus shells from Israeli artillery explode over Dheira, Lebanon, on Oct. 16. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Israeli forces continued to shell the town with white phosphorus munitions for hours, residents said, trapping them in their homes until they could escape around 7 a.m. the next morning. Residents now refer to the attack as the “black night.”

Most fled the town when the shelling stopped, returning during a week-long pause in fighting and leaving again when it 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 shelling and was unable to breathe because of the smoke. He suffered respiratory problems for days after the attack.

“Emergency services told us to put something that was soaked in water on our faces, which helped a bit. I couldn’t see my finger in front of my face,” he said. “The whole village became white.”

White phosphorus ignites when in contact with oxygen and burns at temperatures up to 1,500 degrees, which can cause severe injuries. The chemicals left in the body can damage to internal organs, sometimes fatally, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

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It is unclear why the Israeli military fired the rounds into the evening, as smoke would have little practical use at night and there were no Israeli troops on the Lebanese side of the border to mask with smokescreens. Residents speculated that the phosphorus was meant to displace them from the village and to clear the way for future Israeli military activity in the area.

In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces wrote that white phosphorous shells launched by Israel are used to create smokescreens, not for targeting or causing fires. It said its use of the weapon “complies and goes beyond the requirements of international law.”

Israeli forces possess safer alternatives, such as M150 artillery rounds, which produce screening smoke without the use of white phosphorous.

The U.S. 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 by the city of Sderot, near the Gaza Strip, in an Oct. 9 photo.

The United States is under an obligation to track the behavior of its partners and allies who receive its assistance in order to comply with U.S. law, humanitarian law experts said. The use of white phosphorus is restricted under such international law because fire and smoke can be spread to populated areas, according to rights groups.

“The fact that U.S.-produced white phosphorus is being used by Israel in south Lebanon should be of great concern to U.S. officials,” Tirana Hassan, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email. “[Congress] should take reports of Israel’s use of white phosphorus seriously enough to reassess U.S. military aid to Israel.”

The United States is not conducting real-time assessments of Israel’s adherence to the laws of war, Biden administration officials said.

A U.S. defense official said they were aware of reports about the attack, described in part by Amnesty International, which concluded the incident should be investigated as a war crime.

The Pentagon requires partner militaries to acknowledge obligations under international law when they accept U.S. weapons, “including that these munitions are only to be used for lawful purposes such as signaling and smoke screening,” a U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“We take reports of its unlawful use seriously,” the official said. “We continue to underscore the importance of international humanitarian law compliance, both publicly and privately, in our conversations with our Israeli partners.”

It is unclear when the United States delivered the munitions to Israel. The official said no white phosphorous munitions have been provided since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

White phosphorus fell onto several homes and ignited fires, incinerating furniture and stripping appliances to scorched metal. Remnants of the sticky, black chemical littered the ground 40 days after the attack and combusted when residents kicked at it.

The interior of a home incinerated by white phosphorus shells in Dheira. (William Christou for The Washington Post)

In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented Israel’s use of U.S.-made white phosphorus munitions in violation of international law in its 22-day offensive in Gaza. At least one of the shells found by The Post in Dheira was from the same batch of white phosphorus used by Israel in 2009, according to lot production codes.

In 2013, the Israeli military pledged to stop using white phosphorus on the battlefield, saying it would transition to gas-based smoke shells.

Israel has used the munition 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 Dec. 2 that Israel’s use of the munition has “killed civilians and produced irreversible damage to more than 5 million square meters of forests and farmland, in addition to damaging thousands of olive trees.”

Mohamad El Chamaa in Beirut contributed to this report.

Courtesy of www.washingtonpost.com

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