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Why does Hollywood glorify white phosphorus in war films?

Is a century-old weapon reemerging in the modern-day battlefield? The skies over Gaza have been painted with plumes of smoke, reminiscent of a weapon that first made its chilling debut during World War I. In a world where images and videos spread faster than wildfire, footage has surfaced suggesting Israel might be using white phosphorus in the ongoing conflict.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has sounded the alarm, citing video evidence and personal accounts indicating that white phosphorus may have been deployed over civilian territories. Renowned news outlet The Washington Post gave its nod to the video’s authenticity, showing Israeli artillery shells releasing the tell-tale white smog. Israel, however, is singing a different tune, branding such allegations as “unequivocally false.”

Behind the Smoke

White phosphorus, far from your typical weapon, is mainly used as a smokescreen. Upon hitting the air, it reacts with oxygen and can soar up to temperatures of nearly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. With its unique ability to create light and smoke, it allows troops to mask their movements. Interestingly, its counterpart, red phosphorus, is entirely harmless.

But, as the smoke clouds hang over Gaza, a densely populated region with a population of 2.3 million, the implications are massive. Lama Fakih, who heads the Middle East and North Africa at HRW, emphasizes the grave risks, stating, “Any use of white phosphorus in crowded areas spells danger, from severe burns to lifelong ailments.”

The situation between Israel and Hamas continues to be tense. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not ruling out a potential ground invasion of Gaza and frequent back-and-forths between the two sides, the introduction of white phosphorus could spark even more chaos.

A grim highlight was the recent strike on a Gaza City hospital. While initial reports were quick to blame Israel, subsequent intelligence from both Israeli and U.S. sources suggests that the actual perpetrators were the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants.

The Bigger Picture

Has white phosphorus been used before? Indeed, the United States had deployed white phosphorus projectiles during the 2003 Iraq War. But what makes it exceptionally terrifying is its ability to cause unimaginable harm. Despite not being classified as a chemical weapon, its burns can reach the bone, inflict severe respiratory damage, and even result in organ failure.

International conventions, including the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, have always championed the safeguarding of civilians. Any weapon that primarily causes burns or sets things on fire is under scrutiny. Using white phosphorus in this scenario could be seen as a significant breach of these norms.

Israel had earlier pledged to phase out the use of white phosphorus, opting for U.S.-made World War II-era smoke projectiles. If these allegations prove true, it’d mark a stark reversal in policy.

Delving Deeper

While Israel firmly denies recent accusations, this isn’t the first time it’s been under the microscope for possibly using white phosphorus. Flashback to 2009, during its Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, HRW reported its extensive use. Israeli authorities were initially ambiguous about these claims, transitioning from confirmation to outright denial.

As the conflict rages on and the global community watches closely, one can’t help but wonder: What lengths will nations go to in pursuit of their objectives?

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