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Explained | What is white phosphorus, the munition that Israel is accused of using in Gaza?

Human Rights Watch recently accused Israel of using white phosphorus munitions in its military operations in Gaza and Lebanon, saying the use of such weapons puts civilians at risk of serious and long-term injury.

Israel has been bombarding Gaza in retaliation for a Hamas rampage in southern Israeli towns. Israel has also traded barbs with Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.

Human Rights Watch said it verified videos taken in Lebanon on October 10 and Gaza on October 11 showing “multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza City port and two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border”.

It provided links to two videos posted on social media that it said show “155mm white phosphorus artillery projectiles being used, apparently as smokescreens, marking, or signaling”. Both show scenes near the Israel-Lebanon border, it said.

The group did not provide links to videos showing their alleged use in Gaza. Palestinian TV channels have broadcast video in recent days showing thin plumes of white smoke lining the sky over Gaza that they say was caused by such munitions.

Israeli military said that use of white phosphorus was not confirmed, but added that its use is “not unlawful in certain situations”.

What is white phosphorus?

White phosphorus is a toxic substance made out of rocks that contain phosphate, and is used in making chemicals that go into fertilisers and cleaning compounds. However, white phosphorus also has the ability to ignite instantly when exposed to oxygen. Apart from producing thick smoke, it has a garlic-like, acrid odor, according to CDC.

How is white phosphorus used for military purposes?

White phosphorus munitions can legally be used on battlefields to make smoke screens, generate illumination, mark targets or burn bunkers and buildings.

Because it has legal uses, white phosphorus is not banned as a chemical weapon under international conventions.

White phosphorus is considered an incendiary weapon under Protocol III of the Convention on the Prohibition of Use of Certain Conventional Weapons. The protocol prohibits using incendiary weapons against military targets located among civilians, although Israel has not signed it and is not bound by it. It is mostly used in artillery shells, bombs and rockets

How dangerous is white phosphorus?

White phosphorus can cause serious burns and start fires. According to The Indian Express, such burns cause intense pain, and can even lead to infections. It further stated that even 10 per cent burns from white phosphorus can be life-threatening. Inhaling its particles can lead to respiratory issues, it added.

(With Reuters inputs)

(Published 20 October 2023, 16:22 IST)

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