The Biden administration said on Monday that it is looking into reports by Amnesty International and The Washington Post that Israel used white phosphorus supplied by the United States in violation of international law.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said in an exchange with reporters that the Biden administration was “certainly concerned” about reports of Israel illegally using U.S. -supplied white phosphorus in October in Lebanon. “We’ll be asking questions to try and learn a little bit more,” Mr. Kirby said.
White phosphorus is an incendiary, toxic substance used to create light and smoke screens during combat. Using it isn’t illegal but deploying it deliberately against civilians or in a civilian setting violates the laws of war.
White phosphorous can cause eye and respiratory injuries and extremely painful and sometimes fatal burns, according to the World Health Organization. It can also impact the cardiovascular and central nervous systems, potentially leading to loss of consciousness or coma.
Israel’s military on Monday said it complies with international law and denied using the weapon illegally.
Mr. Kirby’s comments came after the Post on Monday reported on earlier claims from Amnesty International that Israel illegally deployed white phosphorus between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16 in civilian areas of southern Lebanon, along the border with Israel.
The Post said that, in its own investigation, its journalists found remnants of artillery rounds fired into Dheira, Lebanon, near the border of Israel, which residents said destroyed homes and injured people in the region, leaving at least three people hospitalized. The shells’ remains match those used by the U.S. military, according to the Post, and conversations with residents in the area indicate they targeted an area where civilians were likely to be hurt.
Residents told the Post that the shelling was extensive and trapped them in their homes, and some complained of respiratory damage afterward.
Mr. Kirby said white phosphorus can have “a legitimate military utility in terms of illumination.”
“Obviously, anytime that we provide items like white phosphorus to another military it is with the full expectation that it’ll be used in keeping with those legitimate purposes and in keeping with the law of armed conflict,” he said.
In 2013, Israel said it would phase out the use of white phosphorus. Israeli and international human rights organizations accused Israel of using white phosphorus munitions improperly during a three-week military offensive against Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9.
Israel has previously denied using white phosphorus illegally. In response to the latest accusations, the Israeli army said it “uses only legal weapons and ammunition.”
In a statement, the Israeli military said that its “primary smoke-screen shells” do not contain white phosphorus,though Israelsaid it does have shells “that include white phosphorous that are legal under international law.”
The shells are used for smoke screens and not for fires or targeting, said a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces.“I.D.F. procedures require that such shells are not used in densely populated areas, subject to certain exceptions,” the spokesman said. “This complies and goes beyond the requirements of international law.”