Israel Says Claims of White Phosphorous Use by its Forces 'False'

Israel's military has denied the use of white phosphorus in attacks on Gaza. This comes after hundreds took to social media claiming the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were using the toxic munitions against Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

Since the airstrikes between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army started on Monday evening, hundreds of posts have emerged on social media alleging that the IDF has been deploying white phosphorus in Gaza. The chemical is highly toxic, burns in the air and causes severe burns in both the skin and the eyes. The smoke can also cause eye and respiratory infections, as well as stomach irritation. In extreme cases, it can maim and kill by burning bones.

Human rights groups have condemned the previous use of white phosphorus by Israel and other countries, and its use is considered illegal under international law. Because white phosphorus has legal industrial uses, it is not restricted. But under international law, it is considered an incendiary weapon, and prohibited from being used against military targets located among civilians.

A report by Human Rights Watch shows that the IDF used white phosphorus munitions during a 22-day military operation in Gaza, from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009, named Operation Cast Lead.

In 2013, Israel said it would stop using white phosphorus munitions to create smokescreens on the battlefield. No officials have confirmed the use of the toxic substance since.

But hundreds of people have taken to Twitter since the violence between Israelis and Palestinians tarted on Monday, alleging the former had been using the substance. Many of the posts link to a video that shows explosions that could be white phosphorus, but military experts who spoke to Newsweek could not verify that it had been used and the original poster of the video made no reference to the substance.

Asked about whether there was any truth to the rumor, an IDF spokesperson denied any use of white phosphorus. "The information you mention is false. The IDF has not deployed any such munitions," an IDF spokesperson told Newsweek.

The spokesperson also distanced the IDF from allegations that the military was using nerve gas in Gaza.

"The allegations about the use of nerve gas are completely, utterly and absolutely false. The IDF does not use nerve gas at all. These allegations come from the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza, and only further demonstrate that such sources are untrustworthy," he said.

Nicholas Heras, Senior Analyst and Program Head for State Resilience and Fragility, Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told Newsweek: "The IDF has generally tried to stay away from using white phosphorus munitions over the last decade. The Israelis have even tried to adapt their urban warfare doctrine to utilize this type of munition less. However, white phosphorus is still in the IDF arsenal."

Asked why it was still in the arsenal, Heras said: "White phosphorus munitions have a particular use on the battlefield, which is to be a weapon of last resort to clear out enemies that are entrenched in buildings in urban areas. However, the challenge with deploying white phosphorus munitions is that the contexts in which these munitions would be used, to take out hostile forces entrenched in urban areas, is also the context where there are also significant numbers of civilians in close vicinity to where the white phosphorus munitions would be used. Deploying white phosphorus munitions is always a risk of killing civilians."

The IDF did not comment on whether the substance is still in its arsenal.

Newsweek has contacted the Palestinian Health Ministry for comment on the videos.

Israel was preparing ground troops across the border with Gaza on Thursday as the country continued to bombard the Palestinian enclave and Hamas continued to launch rockets at Israel. In its third day, the most intense fighting between the two sides in years showed no signs of abating.

As of Thursday morning, Gaza's Ministry of Health said the overall death toll since the start of the latest siege stood at 69, including 17 children. More than 390 more people have been wounded in the coastal territory. At least seven Israelis—including one child—have been killed.

Islamic Jihad said seven of its militants were killed, while Hamas confirmed a top commander and several other members were killed. Israel says the number of militants killed is higher than the groups have confirmed.

More than 1,600 rockets have been fired by Hamas since Monday, with 400 falling short and landing inside Gaza, Israel's military said on Thursday. The military said its missile defenses have intercepted 90 percent of the rockets.

Around 600 targets inside Gaza have been hit by Israeli airstrikes, the IDF said.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the human cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Statista human cost Israel-Palestine conflict
This infographic shows the number of people killed and wounded in Israeli-Palestinian violence since 2008. Statista

The rocket strikes have been mainly on southern Israel, but a number of barrages have hit Jerusalem, some 60 miles from Gaza and Tel Aviv. It was the first time Jerusalem had been targeted by Hamas since the 2014 war.

Violence flared up on May 8 at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the east of the city. The site houses a mosque considered the third holiest in Islam, but it is also where the most holy site in Judaism, The Temple Mount, is located.

On Monday, fighting at the compound escalated with more than 300 Palestinians wounded when Israeli police stormed the mosque, firing rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas.

There has been further anger at a threatened eviction of Palestinian families from homes in East Jerusalem by Israeli settlers.

The international community has called for calm. President Joe Biden on Wednesday called for a "de-escalation" between the two sides, but said Israel "has a right to defend itself" against rockets fired from the coastal Palestinian enclave.

Air strikes over Gaza City
Rockets are launched from Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, towards Israel on May 12, 2021, amid the most intense Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in seven years. Israel’s military has denied the use of white phosphorus in attacks on Gaza, after hundreds of people took to social media to claim the Israeli Defense Force was using the toxic munitions against Palestinians in the coastal enclave. Mahmud Hams/Getty