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Israel Accused of Using White Phosphorus in Lebanon Amid Fears of an All-Out War and as ‘Hidden Crisis’ Unfolds

Since the beginning of the conflict, about 90,000 southern Lebanese have been forced from their homes and at least 350 people have been killed

A Lebanese man inspects a destroyed house that was hit on Friday night by an Israeli airstrike on 31 May. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy
A Lebanese man inspects a destroyed house that was hit by an Israeli airstrike on 31 May killing one woman and wounding several other people. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

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Tensions between Israel and Lebanon appear to have intensified in recent days with the Israeli prime minister telling troops he is prepared for “very strong action” inside Lebanon and amid reports of incendiary white phosphorus attacks.

The escalation comes as Human Rights Watch (HRW) released the findings of an investigation on Wednesday that verified the use of white phosphorus munitions by Israeli forces in at least 17 municipalities, including populated civilian areas, across south Lebanon following the Hamas attack on 7 October, 2023. The report said Israel’s widespread use of the chemical was “putting civilians at grave risk and contributing to civilian displacement”. 

White phosphorus is a chemical substance dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets that ignites when exposed to oxygen, HRW wrote, explaining that its incendiary effects “inflict death or cruel injuries that result in lifelong suffering”. It urged Israel to “immediately stop” using it in populated areas, “especially when less-harmful alternatives are readily available”.

Sky News reported Thursday that both Israeli and Arab media have been awash with warnings about the possibility of all-out war on the Lebanese front, and that there have been multiple reports of diplomatic warnings from Western envoys about an imminent Israeli attack on Lebanon.

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The media focus has rarely strayed from Gaza where the horrors have continued unabated since Israel launched its counter-offensive – after Hamas attacked killing 1,200 – but casualties in Lebanon are also mounting.

In what many have labelled a genocide, more than 36,400 lives have been lost – most of them civilians – in Israel’s eight-month-long attack on Gaza, which has been rendered unliveable, and the entire population of more than 2.2 million people are at risk of famine.

International outrage intensified last week when an Israeli airstrike on a tent city in Rafah killed at least 45 people, including women and children. The area in the southern Gaza Strip was deemed a safe zone and a World Court had ordered Israel to halt its military assault.


The death Toll in Lebanon is Rising

Days before the Rafah atrocity, three Lebanese school children on a minibus were wounded after an Israeli drone airstrike hit the car ahead of them near the town of Nabatiyeh, about 13 kilometres from the Israeli border. 

Last month, a family of four, one of them a 12-year-old boy, were killed by an Israeli airstrike in their hometown of Mais al-Jabal – a village repeatedly struck by Israel. They had fled the south due to an escalation at the border but temporarily returned to check on their home and supermarket. 

And, in April, a woman with her 10-year-old niece were killed and four children and their grandparents were wounded in another Israeli strike on the southern town of Haine.

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Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas hostilities, about 90,000 southern Lebanese, including over 30,000 children, have been forced from their homes, according to a Unicef report released at the end of April, and according to the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health, over 350 people have been killed by Israeli attacks in the south of Lebanon, including at least eight children and 21 women.

Near daily Israeli aerial offensives have a devastating impact on the population in the south of the country, threatening the everyday lives of children and families, and ruining their futures.   

“I went to school for only one day, and on that day the war broke out, so I couldn’t continue going”, Farah said, reflecting on her schooling, and friends now scattered by the conflict in a Save The Children social media post.

“I worry for the safety of my friends and family members who weren’t able to leave”, Razan, 13, says in a Unicef social media post after being displaced by the Lebanon-Israel border hostilities. 

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“I just want to go back home, I miss it”, Serge who fled the village of Kfar Kila and moved with his family to a shelter in Habbouch says in a Unicef post on Instagram.

“I brought my teddy bear, but I miss my bed at home”, 8-year-old Malak, from Kfar Kila, who took refuge in Nabatieh after their home was damaged in an Israeli bombing, says in another social media post.

“These kids miss their home, their family, their normal routine. It’s that familiarity of surroundings, its consistency, and emotional security”, Ettie Higgins, Unicef’s deputy representative in Lebanon told Byline Times.

The intensification of fighting has destroyed or damaged civilian infrastructure and facilities and disrupted essential services such as education and health as well as access to water, sanitation and hygiene. 


Hundreds of Thousands of Children are Missing out on Education

Since October 8, when Hezbollah opened the southern front in response to Israel’s attacks on Gaza, Unicef’s latest study found that more than 70 schools have been partially or fully closed, especially in border areas, affecting around 20,000 children. Even before the current confrontation, more than 700,000 children in Lebanon were missing out on education.

The Unicef survey also showed that the complete or partial closure of 27 health facilities in the south due to the conflict has impacted 4,000 children among tens of thousands of people who have lost access to public health care. Vital services like immunisation, access to critical medications, maternal healthcare and pre-and-postnatal care have been cut. 

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One hundred thousand people have no access to safe drinking water since nine water facilities were damaged and destroyed. Displaced children face increased risks of water and sanitation-related diseases because of overcrowding and inadequate sanitation facilities.

As more Lebanese families are displaced by cross-border exchanges, disruption of regular in-person learning increases the risk of child labour and early marriage for the most vulnerable, particularly girls and children with disabilities, authorities warn. 

The continued conflict is also taking a heavy toll on children’s mental and physical health, with rapidly increasing cases of anxiety and trauma reported by children and their families. 

Higgins, having regularly visited families from south Lebanon, has observed high levels of psychological distress among displaced minors. Talking about their children, parents have often cited angry behaviour, crying, bedwetting and nightmares. 

This prolonged trauma at a household level can mean many years of residual trauma. Children are the innocent victims of a war that isn’t of their making

Ettie Higgins, Unicef

Higgins went on to highlight how children are being exposed to “toxic stress” both at home and in the community.

The current disrupted school year comes on top of three previous years of missed education in Lebanon, following over a year of teachers’ strikes and Covid

“It’s devastating”, Bassel Akar, an education research consultant in crisis-hit areas, said referring to the long-term effects of the lack of proper learning: “It’s not just about not learning information or falling behind on a subject, but also missing out on the learning practice, feedback, and the schooling routine.”

Based on interviews he conducted with families forced to flee from the south, scattered between Beirut and Sidon, Akar, who is based in Lebanon, found widespread concern for the loss of homes, incomes, and what will happen next. 

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“They are stuck in a survival mode, and are getting used to another way of living where schooling is not a priority”, the education specialist remarked, pointing out that for displaced Lebanese families who are already struggling financially, it is difficult to secure more than one meal a day. 

These conflict-affected children, he explained, are trying to deal with limited schooling and their families’ worsened financial situation that does not allow them to grow in a healthy environment. “It will be a generation that is not only behind but also not interested in going back to school or learning”, Akar concluded.  

The Lebanon deputy representative for Unicef voiced worries that in such a state of lost education, families turn to negative coping mechanisms like marrying off their young girls and sending children to work as the situation remains volatile. Higgins described the disruption of education in Lebanon as a “hidden crisis” with long-term consequences. 

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Israel’s war on Gaza is the latest crisis to hit Lebanon, adding to a series of political and economic crises that have devastated the small Middle Eastern state since 2019 resulting in job losses, high inflation, and shortage of basic services – including fuel, medicines and electricity- and pushing over 80% of the population into poverty. 

Before the conflict, the health and education systems were already on the brink of collapse after years of financial constraints and a lack of resources. 

After more than eight months of regular cross-border hostilities, 75% of children in Lebanon are at risk of poverty and every aspect of their lives is being critically affected. 

“This country was previously on its knees economically. The impact on children’s everyday life is now total disruption”, the Unicef deputy head said noting that forcibly displaced parents, for the most part, don’t have the means to start a new livelihood amid ongoing multiple crises. 


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