BBC exhumes old white phosphorus canard

An article entitled “Israel ‘to stop using white phosphorus shells’” appeared in the Middle East section of the BBC News website on April 26th 2013.

WP article

This badly composed piece uses a recent announcement – relating to the intention to replace smokescreen shells containing white phosphorus with an alternative – as a hook upon which to hang old insinuations and accusations.

The article (which has been amended since its original appearance) opens reasonably:

“The Israeli military says it is to stop using artillery shells with white phosphorus to create smokescreens on the battlefield.

It says shells will be replaced with types based completely on gas, which will create the same effect.”

But immediately after that, the report goes downhill by creating fictional linkage between the use of smokescreen shells containing white phosphorus – which are not restricted in weapons conventions – and types of munitions which are not the subject of the article and are not used by the IDF. 

“Rights groups condemned Israel’s use of white phosphorus during the Gaza conflict because of its severely harmful effects on civilians.

International law restricts the use of white phosphorus during war.”

What would the average reader understand from those two sentences? He or she would comprehend that during “the Gaza conflict” (it is not made clear which one, and so most readers would automatically remember the last surge of conflict five months ago), Israel had used munitions containing white phosphorus in contravention of international law and against civilians.

That, of course, is an inaccurate representation of circumstances. 

The report’s subsequent ‘explanatory’ paragraphs are no better. Readers already familiar with the region’s history now learn that in fact the article relates to ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in late 2008/early 2009.

“Three years ago, Israel promised to draw up new rules on the use of shells containing white phosphorus, in the wake of the Gaza war.

Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the three-week conflict.”

The report neglects to mention that – according to Hamas – around half the Palestinians killed were terrorist combatants. 

The article then goes on to unquestioningly repeat old claims made in the self- discredited ‘Goldstone Report’ and (yet again) by the compromised NGO Human Rights Watch without making any effort whatsoever to explain to readers the events of the intervening three years – such as the Hamas admission above – which have undermined many of the claims made at the time, or the results of professional investigations into the accusations.  

“During the offensive, Israel used white phosphorus rounds in densely populated areas, the UN and Human Rights Watch said.

Part of a UN compound burned down after it was hit by chunks of the burning chemical which ignites on contact with air.

Human Rights Watch said Israel “deliberately or recklessly” used white phosphorus shells in violation of the laws of war, causing “needless civilian deaths”.”

Even what is presumably supposed to pass as ‘balance’ in the next paragraph is tainted by manipulative wording. [emphasis added]

Israel has insisted that its use of white phosphorus in the conflict was permitted under international law and that it sought to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths in Gaza.”

The BBC report rounds off with ‘explanations’ about white phosphorus – the trouble being that those explanations have only partial relevance to the original story and do not make sufficiently clear the differentiation in weapons protocols between the substance’s use as a smokescreen (as used by the IDF) and other uses. 

“As a weapon, white phosphorus is used to mark enemy targets and to produce smoke for concealing troop movements. It can also be used as an incendiary device against enemy positions.

Its effects however can be extremely harmful. If burning white phosphorus lands on a person’s skin, it can go through to the bone. Toxic phosphoric acid can also be released into wounds, risking phosphorus poisoning.

A protocol to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons bans the use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations or in air attacks against enemy forces in civilian areas.”

Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons  – titled “Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons” -clearly states:

“(b) Incendiary weapons do not include: 
(i) Munitions which may have incidental incendiary effects, such as illuminants, tracers, smoke or signalling systems”

By failing to make sufficiently clear the legal status of smokescreens and by deliberately introducing into the story confusing and unnecessary references to incendiary weapons, this BBC report implies by omission wrongdoing on Israel’s part – in clear breach of BBC Editorial Guidelines on accuracy and impartiality. 


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