Israeli web magazine +972 reported Thursday that the Israeli army has stopped using white phosphorus because it “does not look good” internationally. Israel was widely criticized after its use of white phosphorus in Operation Cast Lead in 2009 caused the civilian deaths. That was four years ago, but this announcement coincides with evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria. It could be part of a strategy to make Israel look good while pressing for international action on Syria.
White phosphorus burns on contact with air, emitting smoke. When it comes into contact with skin, it causes severe chemical burns that may extend down to the bone, that are difficult to heal because they may reignite when exposed to oxygen. The chemical has been used by international forces in Afghanistan, where an 8-year-old girl was severely burned on her head and neck by a white phosphorus shell in 2009.
In 2009, Human Rights Watch claimed that Israel’s use of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead was evidence of war crimes.White phosphorus is legal because, even though it is a dangerous incendiary, it is primarily used to provide smoke cover for troops. However, the HRW report said that their researchers found clear evidence that the Israeli military fired white phosphorus over dense urban areas where troops weren’t present and safer alternatives were available. As a result, the shells killed twelve civilians and wounded dozens of others.
The Israeli military responded at the time that its use of white phosphorus was in line with international law. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons allows white phosphorus because it only restricts weapons “primarily designed” to set fires or cause burns. White phosphorus munitions’ primary military uses are to provide smokescreens for troop movement and to provide target markers, not as an incendiary.
In February 2010, however, the Israeli military reprimanded two senior military officers for “exceeding their authority in a manner that jeopardized the lives of others.” In July 2010, in response to the Goldstone Report accusing Israel and Hamas of war crimes in 2009, the military reported to the UN it would take clear steps to restrict white phosphorus use to avoid civilian casualties. This most recent decision to stop the use of white phosphorus altogether coincides with Israel’s claims that it has evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria, so it could be an effort to avoid accusations of hypocrisy.
The weapons the Syrian regime allegedly used, such as sarin and mustard gas, are explicitly banned in international law, whereas white phosphorus use as an incendiary is just on shaky ground, so the comparison isn’t exact by any means. But Israel’s previous decisions to limit white phosphorus use were in response to bad international press and pressure from the international community, so it’s likely this is a proactive PR move.
Even if the motive is less than noble, ending their use of white phosphorus is an important step. At best, it could strengthen attempts to ban the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary worldwide.