Behind the Smoke: The Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus

Jack Cinamon
Published on
February 1, 2024
White Phosphorus reported near Lebanon, October 16, 2023. ; Image: CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed A.H.T Videomapping via Wikimedia Commons, image quality enhanced using Canva AI


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The work of the Corruption Tracker documents how corruption within the arms trade creates an environment of near impunity for those profiting from the trade in weapons. This has contributed to a global political landscape where the West and its allies can freely violate international law without accountability or justice. Nowhere is this more evident than in Israel, where Prime Ministers such as Netanyahu, along with high-ranking government officials and generals, have been implicated in many arms-related corruption scandals. Now that this has culminated in an ongoing genocide in Gaza, it is crucial to examine the complicity of the US, the UK, Germany and others in genocide, war crimes, and violations of humanitarian and human rights law. This piece, by CT Researcher Jack Cinamon, examines the illegality of the use of white phosphorus on the people of Gaza, and the hypocrisy of the West in its uncritical support.

In the heart of the United States (US), along the Mississippi River, exists an alliance in the production, storage, and export of white phosphorus munitions. Three companies, Pine Bluff Arsenal (PBA), Monsanto (now Bayer), and Israel Chemical Ltd (ICL, now ICL Group), produce the majority of the world’s white phosphorus munitions – weapons responsible for such terror and devastation as seen in the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, as well as in Southern Lebanon, over the last months.

Israel has the most powerful military in the Middle East. It may not match numbers in personnel like Turkey and Egypt, but the might of its training, equipment, technologies and nuclear weapons makes it unmatched in the region. Its capabilities in chemical weapons serve as a demonstration of this power.

White phosphorus, or tetraphosphorus, is derived from phosphate rocks and ignites upon contact with oxygen. The lethal effects of white phosphorus munitions stem from the dense white smoke they produce, capable of reaching temperatures exceeding 800 degrees celsius, sufficient enough to melt metal. As expected, when it comes into contact with human skin, it inflicts such severe burns that exposure to just 10% of the body can prove fatal, continuing to burn layers of the skin into muscle and bone. White phosphorus can lead to blindness, asphyxiation, and lasting respiratory harm. When used as a weapon it has the potential to cause unbearable suffering.

This unbearable suffering can be found in Gaza currently. The Crisis Evidence Lab at Amnesty International verified attacks on Gaza by white phosphorus M825 and M825A1 projectiles labelled D528, the US department of Defense Identification Code (DODIC) for white phosphorus-based rounds. The use of these weapons on the civilian population represent a disproportionate reaction to various attacks by Hamas and other armed groups in Israel on the 7th October 2023. The use of white phosphorus by the Israeli Defence Force has been labelled a war crime, a fitting description to the extent of its atrocities, but legality in the use of white phosphorus munitions under international law is questionable.   

The Origins of White Phosphorus

White phosphorus munitions are not widely manufactured, due to the fact that they are chemical weapons, so the production source can be easily traced. Codings found on the 155mm M825A1 White Phosphorus Smoke Projectile remnants on the ground in Gaza indicate the contractors to be Pine Bluff Arsenal, with the metal parts produced by one of the world’s largest defence companies, General Dynamics. 

1) Pine Bluff Arsenal:

The supply of these white phosphorus munitions originate from PBA, ‘the only place in the Northern Hemisphere where white phosphorus munitions are filled’. Established in 1941, it was the intention during WWII that PBA would expand its mission to include the manufacture and storage of chemical weapons, which included the filling of white phosphorus ammunition. It provides the US and allied forces with products and services that are unavailable from other sources, such as with specialised ammunition, smoke, and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence capabilities. It now stands as the epicentre of white phosphorus munitions production.

PBA is owned and operated by the US. The company employs around 2,300 government and contractor employees. The incestuous relationship between the arms trade and the military is known as the ‘revolving door’, highlighted by the recurring rate in which military personnel join defence and security companies. PBA is no exception to this pattern: Colonel Collin K. Keenan assumed command in April 2023, succeeding Colonel Tod T. Marchand, who was reassigned to the Pentagon. The facility is strategically located in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, with a port authority on the Arkansas River near its confluence with the Mississippi River, offering convenient connectivity to Monsanto, situated along the river in St. Louis, Missouri.

2) Monsanto:

The only company responsible for white phosphorus chemical production in the US is the notorious Monsanto, now renamed to Bayer after a $63 billion takeover by the German company in 2018, infamous for the controversial production of Agent Orange used by the US in the Vietnam War 1961-71 as part of its herbicidal warfare, Operation Ranch Hand to eliminate forest cover, which continues to cast a dark shadow over both US veterans and the Vietnamese population to this day. Bayer has more recently been in the limelight for its controversial cancer-causing weedkiller Roundup.

Currently under the ownership of Bayer, a publicly traded company, one of Monsanto’s major shareholders is BlackRock, an investment company apparently dedicated to the divestment of  biological-chemical weapons. Instead of selling white phosphorus directly to the US government, Monsanto collaborates with a distributor named Israel Chemical Ltd, now known as ICL Group. ICL Group operates from a site near the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri.

3) ICL:

ICL’s parent company Israel Corporate which is one of the largest Israeli conglomerates, lists them as providers of fertilisers and special chemicals. Headquartered in occupied Tel Aviv, Israel, ICL is a minerals company which mines phosphates in the Negev Desert, ICL US has a chemical manufacturing plant in St. Louis, US. It is believed that ICL provides Monsanto with phosphates for the production of the white phosphorus chemical later provided to PBA for filling. 

The Legal Quandary

Despite worldwide condemnation and claims of war crimes, the manufacture and use of white phosphorus continues. Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons outlines restrictions on incendiary weapons, yet the manufacture and use of white phosphorus is not explicitly illegal. Its primary use is in tactical warfare, sold under the guise of smoke-screen and illumination devices, and so avoids the ‘incendiary weapon’ definition. However, the irony lies in its transformation; when its primary use changes, it becomes an ‘incendiary weapon’ turned upon civilians, its very nature shifts, breaching international law, rendering its use a war crime banned by Article 2 of Protocol III.

In a place like Gaza, one of the world’s most densely-populated areas, the legal use of such a weapon is not possible because it inflicts civilian harm. Recent use of white phosphorus munitions in Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces on a UN school where thousands were seeking refuge can only be described as nothing other than an unjustifiable and indefensible act intending to cause immense suffering to civilians. A similar attack in 2009, also on a UN school where 1600 people were sheltering at the time, killed two people and wounded 14. White phosphorus use by Israel has also been documented in civilian areas in Southern Lebanon. Deliberately attacking civilians who are not taking a direct part in hostilities violates the Geneva Conventions, Hague Regulations and customary law. This includes the use of white phosphorus against military personnel in civilian areas. 

The Utter Hypocrisy

In the face of this horror, hypocrisy thrives. Israel’s egregious use of white phosphorus echoes the transgressions of various nations. The United States, a self-proclaimed advocate for peace and democracy, finds itself entangled in this web of duplicity. From the streets in Fallujah to the besieged lands of Gaza, victims bear the brunt of this twisted morality. As the world condemns chemical warfare, the very nations condemning it perpetuate its existence.

For example, Saddam Hussein used mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin for attacks against 40 Kurdish villages, leading to the killing of almost 5,000 Kurdish citizens across 1987-88, the worst of which was in Halabja in 1988. Some argue it was the Reagan administration’s complicity in Hussein’s use of chemical weapons prior to events in Halabja during the Iran-Iraq War 1980–88 that gave Hussein the confidence for further war crimes. Failure to condemn such actions in the Iran-Iraq War contributed to the genocide of the Kurdish people in Northern Iraq. The irony is that the US deployed chemical weapons while claiming that they freed the people of Iraq from the tyrannical regime of Hussein for using chemical weapons. We are seeing this very same situation play out again through the Israel Occupation Force’s use of white phosphorus in the genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza, in which the US and the international community is again failing to condemn.

Let’s not forget that the US has a long running history of incendiary weapons use, including in both Korea and Vietnam. Okay, this was before the ban on chemical weapons, but they have nonetheless continued to use chemical weapons after. It was only this year the US destroyed the last of its declared ‘chemical weapons’ of sarin filled munitions. They have been very quick to judge others using it while until very recently keeping stockpiles, identified by international law as an ‘incendiary weapon’ themselves.

Over recent decades, we have seen the damage of numerous white phosphorus attacks on civilians by NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2009, by US military in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, by the Turkish (another NATO member) against the Kurdish people in Serekaniye, Syria in 2019, by Saudi Arabia in their US-back campaign in Yemen in 2016, and further recent accusations of the use by Russian forces in Ukraine in 2022. The world condemned the use of Sarin by Bashar Assad’s forces in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013 which killed over 1,000 people, and has been described as the worst use of chemical weapons since Halabja. The Donald Trump administration condemned the use of chemical weapons used by the Syrian military in Douma in 2018, prompting analysts to reflect the “hypocrisy” and “duplicity” of US foreign policy. US President Biden has also condemned the use of white phosphorus by Russia on Ukraine. It seems the use of chemical weapons against civilians is only acceptable if the perpetrators are US-allies.  

This is not the first time Israel has violated international law and used white phosphorus on neighbouring countries either. Israel has previously used white phosphorus in Lebanon in 1982, 1993 and 2006, and before in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, including the targeting of refugee camps and United Nations schools. However, Western governments find themselves in an awkward situation as the very suppliers of chemical munitions, it would be hypocritical for the US to condemn the use, while producing and exporting them themselves and maintaining supply. 

The bitter irony lies in the global condemnation of chemical weapons’ use, while nations like the US until recently manufactured and exported them. The US government, a supplier of Israel’s deadly arsenal, remains silent, prompting a dire need for an investigation into these exports and the production of such stocks. As the smoke of hypocrisy chokes the world, the shadows of white phosphorus cast an ominous, enduring veil over humanity. For the victims – the time has come to unmask this horror and demand accountability.

The White House has expressed concern over Israel’s recent use of white phosphorus in South Lebanon, but little concerns are easily brushed off. The US government has the legal obligation to conduct an investigation to determine whether Israel used it in violation of international humanitarian law. There are questions remaining as to whether the US are continuing white phosphorus munition exports to Israel, but definitely the export of any weapons to a country committing genocide are illegal under both US and international law.

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Pine Bluff Arsenal, Monsanto (now Bayer), and Israel Chemical Ltd (ICL) form a significant alliance in the production, storage, and export of white phosphorus munitions along the Mississippi River.

White phosphorus munitions, derived from phosphate rocks, cause severe burns, blindness, and respiratory harm. Recent use by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza has led to accusations of war crimes.

The article highlights global condemnation of chemical weapons while pointing out the hypocrisy of nations, including the US, manufacturing and exporting them.