Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that advocates for human rights, said Thursday that it had concluded Israel used white phosphorus during military operations in Lebanon and Gaza this week.
In a statement, HRW said it had verified videos from Oct. 10 and 11 showing “multiple airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus over the Gaza City port and two rural locations along the Israel-Lebanon border” in addition to interviewing two witnesses to the Gaza attack.
White phosphorus is a highly combustible substance that produces heat at approximately 1499 degrees Fahrenheit. It is typically used for shining light on targets at night or as smokescreens to hide military activity, but when it is used as a weapon, it can cause severe burns that affect areas deep into the tissue and bone and long-term health impacts such as infections, respiratory damage, organ failure, and muscle contractions that can limit mobility.
The resulting fires are also difficult to extinguish and have the capacity to severely damage property and kill crops and livestock.
The United Nations’ Office for Disarmament Affairs states that white phosphorus falls under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which defines international law for the use of incendiary weapons.
White phosphorous is not outright banned, but using it in densely populated civilian areas—like Gaza—may constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, HRW said.
There is at least one notable loophole, however: incendiary weapons launched from the ground are governed by less strict guidelines than those dropped from the air, giving Israel at least one defense of their alleged artillery-fired use of white phosphorous.
It’s not the first time Israel has lobbed the highly combustible substance into the tightly-packed confines of the Gaza strip—the HRW previously found that from Dec. 27, 2008 to Jan. 18, 2009, the Israel Defense Forces launched artillery projectiles of white phosphorus on six separate occasions. The organization also revealed that dozens of civilians died as a result.
The attacks drew criticism from various international organizations, prompting the Israeli military to pledge that it would halt its use of the weapons in densely populated areas unless for “extreme exception in highly particular circumstances.”
This week’s war between Israel and Palestinian militants began after forces with the extremist group Hamas crossed into Israel early Saturday morning and massacred civilians at a number of locations, including a music festival near the country’s border with Gaza.
ZAKA, Israel’s volunteer emergency response group, reported that they found at least 260 bodies at or near the festival grounds.
Israel immediately launched a blistering counteroffensive and officially declared war on Hamas the next day.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed an emergency government and wartime cabinet late Wednesday as well. In a televised statement, Netanyahu said, “Every Hamas terrorist is a dead man.” His defense minister, Yoav Gallant, echoed the harsh words and promised to eliminate Hamas, saying, “we will wipe them off the face of the Earth.”
As of Thursday, the sixth day of fighting, at least 1,537 people have been killed in Gaza, including roughly 500 children, according to the Palestinian health ministry. An additional 6,612 were wounded by Israeli airstrikes.
Israel has stated that an estimated 1,300 people were killed during the assault by Hamas militants, with more than 3,000 wounded, according to The Wall Street Journal.