IDF denies reported white phosphorous misuse in south Lebanon

Gantz tells Blinken that Israel will have to respond to rising Hezbollah attacks

War cabinet minister ups pressure on international community to restore calm on northern border via diplomatic means, before Israel responds with greater military force

Black smoke rises from an Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of Yaroun, a Lebanese border village with Israel, in south Lebanon, December 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Black smoke rises from an Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of Yaroun, a Lebanese border village with Israel, in south Lebanon, December 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday that the uptick in attacks by Hezbollah will require a firm Israeli response, as rocket fire by the Lebanese terror group continued to target towns on Israel’s northern border.

“Gantz stated that heightened aggression and increased attacks by Iranian-backed Hezbollah demand of Israel to remove such a threat to the civilian population of northern Israel,” according to an Israeli readout.

Gantz added that “the international community currently has an important role to play, and it must act to ensure that the state of Lebanon stops such aggression along its border,” the statement said.

No US readout was immediately available.

The message appeared to reflect an intensification of Israeli pressure on the US and other members of the international community to restore calm on the border through diplomatic means. Jerusalem is hoping that the US, France, or other foreign mediators will be able to broker the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

That initiative brought to an end the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and called for the disarmament of all non-state armed forces in Lebanon — namely Hezbollah — as well as for the region between the Israel-Lebanon border and the Litani River to be freed of all armed forces other than the Lebanese army and the UN’s peacekeeping mission UNIFIL.

Over the years though, Hezbollah has violated the resolution, amassing weapons and forces near the border with little enforcement by UNIFIL.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on November 3, 2023. (State Department)

Pressure within Jerusalem has heightened to respond to such violations, rather than letting them go unanswered, amid fears the Lebanese terror group could attack Israel the way that Hamas did on October 7, when thousands infiltrated the southern border, butchering some 1,200 people and taking around 240 hostages into Gaza.

Hezbollah-led attacks along the northern border with Lebanon have been constant since the Israel-Hamas war began. Daily exchanges of fire with Hezbollah and allied Palestinian groups are raising fears of a broader conflagration.

On Monday night, Hezbollah fired a number of anti-tank missiles from southern Lebanon at a home in the northern Israeli town of Metula. According to Metula Regional Council bhead David Azoulay, some 15 homes in the northern city were damaged and one was completely destroyed in the attack.

In a statement, the terror group said the attack was a response to the death of the mayor of the Lebanese village of Taybeh, Hussein Ali Mansour, who was reported to have been killed in IDF shelling Monday, amid repeated cross-border Hezbollah attacks.

Hezbollah claimed a home hit in Metula was being used by the IDF.

There were no injuries in the attack. Metula has largely been evacuated of residents, given the Hezbollah attacks.

The IDF responded with artillery shelling at the source of the fire.

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in four civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of six IDF soldiers. There have also been a number of rocket attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

On the Lebanese side, more than 120 have been killed, according to an AFP tally. Hezbollah on Monday said two more of its members were killed, bringing the group’s total to 100 — some of whom were killed in Syria.

Israeli defense officials estimate that the Hezbollah death count is higher and that the terror group is covering up the true number of fatalities among its ranks.

Sixteen other Palestinian terrorists have also been killed on the Lebanon side of the border, along with at least 14 civilians and three journalists.

Monday’s attacks also included a barrage of at least eight rockets fired from Lebanon at the northern city of Ma’alot-Tarshiha in the morning. No one was reported injured in the attack.

Footage showed the Iron Dome air defense system intercepting several of the projectiles, and the IDF said six of the rockets were successfully downed by the system.

The other two rockets apparently landed in open areas.

The IDF said it responded with artillery shelling at the sources of the fire in southern Lebanon.

The IDF later also said it struck a cell in southern Lebanon that had fired rockets at the Shtula area in northern Israel, as well as a launcher used to fire projectiles at the Yiftah area earlier.

The IDF said it carried out another airstrike against a Hezbollah military compound in southern Lebanon, in response to rocket fire on the Galilee earlier Monday.

A picture took from the Israeli side of the border shows Lebanese security forces and Hezbollah supporters at the Israel-Lebanon border, October 7, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

White phosphorous accusations

Separately on Monday, the Washington Post reported that Israel used white phosphorus supplied by the US in a recent strike on southern Lebanon, noting that several civilians were hurt in the incident and that Amnesty International has said it should be investigated as a war crime.

The report, based on an investigation the paper conducted on the ground, said the shells containing the incendiary material were used on October 16 in the border village of Dhayra. Four homes were burned down and at least nine people were injured.

The report wrongly claimed Israel pledged in 2013 to stop using white phosphorus, while in fact the military said it would limit the use, largely moving to use other means to create smokescreens for troops. However, it has reserved the right to use such shells in certain, undisclosed cases that have been approved by the Supreme Court (the uses were not detailed to the public for security concerns).

International law does not ban the use of white phosphorus, and the US used it in both Syria and Iraq in fighting against ISIS. However, the legality of its use, as with any munition, depends on circumstance.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US was “concerned” about the Washington Post report.

“We’ll be asking questions to try to learn a little bit more,” Kirby said during a briefing.

Kirby said white phosphorus does have a “legitimate military utility” when used for illumination and producing smoke to conceal movements.

A picture taken from the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon shows shells exploding over hills around the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab on December 8, 2023. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

“Obviously, anytime that we provide items like white phosphorus to another military, it is with a full expectation that it will be used in keeping with those legitimate purposes and in keeping with the law of armed conflict.”

Kirby said the administration has repeatedly made clear that it does not want to see a second front open in the Israel-Hamas war.

“We absolutely don’t want to see this conflict spill over into Lebanon,” Kirby said. “And so it is also in the context of that we’re concerned about these reports.”

In its own response to the Post report, the IDF said it “only uses legal weaponry.”

“The main smoke shells used by the IDF do not contain white phosphorus. Similar to many Western armies, the IDF also has smoke shells that contain white phosphorus, which are legal according to international law, and the choice to use them is influenced by operational considerations and availability compared to alternatives,” the IDF said in a statement.

“These shells are intended for smokescreens, and not for an attack or ignition, and they are not legally defined as incendiary weapons,” it continued. The IDF said that under its existing procedures, white phosphorus shells are not to be used in urban areas “except in certain exceptional cases.”

“These restrictions are in line with international law, and are even stricter than them,” the IDF added.

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