CBS Incorrectly Claims Israel Used ‘Banned Weapon,’ Ignores Hamas ‘War Crimes’

On Thursday’s CBS Evening News, Katie Couric incorrectly called one of the munitions reportedly used by the Israeli military a "banned weapon," and, after ignoring numerous violations of international law perpetrated by Hamas, relayed charges that Israel may have committed "war crimes." Referring to Israel’s alleged use of white phosphorus in Gaza, Couric introduced the report: "Hamas gave a thumbs-down to President Obama today, saying his Middle East policy is no different from President Bush's. Hamas just ended a bloody war with Israel in Gaza, and tonight there is growing evidence the Israelis may have used a banned weapon. Some even accuse them of war crimes." Video plus an online version of the story can be found here.

But the use of white phosphorus (WP) is not banned outright, though there are restrictions on its use near civilians areas, and the munition has actually been used by the American military in Iraq. After reports that WP was employed in Fallujah, Iraq, including criticism that it was employed too close to civilians, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace defended its use in a November 29, 2005 Pentagon briefing: "White phosphorus is a legitimate tool of the military. It is used for two primary purposes. One is to mark a location for strike by an aircraft ... The other is to be used ... as a screening agent so that you can move your forces without being seen by the enemy. It is not a chemical weapon ... it is well within the law of war to use those weapons as they are being used for marking and for screening."

Retired Joint Chiefs Chairman Pace’s comments on WP can be found here.

In an interview with Peter Herby of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), posted on the organization’s Web site, after making a distinction between the use of WP as a weapon and its use as a smokescreen or illuminating agent, Herby acknowledged that WP is legal under some circumstances: "If munitions containing white phosphorous are used to mark military targets or to spread smoke then their use is regulated by the basic rules of international humanitarian law. The fact that international humanitarian law does not specifically prohibit phosphorous weapons does not imply that any specific use of weapons containing this substance is legal. The legality of each incident of use has to be considered in light of all of the fundamental rules I have mentioned. It may be legal or not, depending on a variety of factors."

The interview with Herby can be found on the ICRC’s Web site here.

As she plugged the story before a commercial break, Couric referred to WP as a "horrific new weapon," even though WP has been in use since World War I: "And coming up next right here on the CBS Evening News, was it a war crime? Israel's accused of using a horrific new weapon against Hamas."

Correspondent Allen Pizzey began his report: "These images are part of what Amnesty International calls indisputable proof the Israeli military illegally used white phosphorus in Gaza. The smoke producing and incendiary chemical is banned in civilian areas because of its intense heat and fumes." After the CBS correspondent relayed the Israeli point of view that "The Israelis admit firing 200 white phosphorus shells, but deny breaking international law," the rest of the story was devoted to describing WP's effects on humans and making the case against Israel. Pizzey concluded: "The Israelis have ordered an inquiry, but human rights groups are calling for an international investigation."

Nowhere in the report did Pizzey inform viewers of measures that the Israeli military uses to minimize civilian casualties, such as dropping leaflets and making warning phone calls. While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) reports that, as of January 16, a million leaflets had been dropped to give civilians notice of Israeli military activity, according to a Nexis search, the CBS Evening News has so far not informed its viewers of these leaflet drops, although CBS’s Early Show has mentioned the leaflet warnings on three occasions.

[Updated added April 1, 2009: In a March 25 article, "During Operation Cast Lead, IDF Use of Munitions Legal," after explaining its use of white phosphorous as a smokescreen, the IDF asserted:

It should be noted that contrary to the claims in the Human Rights Watch report, smoke shells are not an incendiary weapon. The third protocol of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) – which defines particular limitations on incendiary weapons – clearly states that weapons intended for screening are not classified as incendiary weapons. Though the State of Israel is not a signatory of the third protocol, in any case, this protocol does not ban the use of smoke shells for the purpose of screening.

]

It is especially ironic that CBS would run a story on the possibility that the Israeli military has committed war crimes when the network has not used the "war crime" term with regard to some applicable actions by Hamas. Israelis have complained that, in addition to targeting Israeli civilians with its rockets, the terrorist group positions its weapons in civilian areas like schools and mosques, thus converting them into military targets and illegally endangering Palestinian civilians. Israelis have further charged that Hamas members have dressed in Israeli military uniforms, thus breaking the rules against deception. Hamas has even been accused of using white phosphorus in its rockets that are launched at civilians in Israel.

AIPAC also reports: "Hamas has booby-trapped hundreds of civilian buildings it uses for storing weapons and ammunition and attacking Israelis, forcing Israel to destroy civilian infrastructure. In one Gaza City neighborhood, 30 of the 150 homes searched by the IDF were rigged with explosives."

The AIPAC report can be found here, and the Customary Rules of International Humanitarian Law can be found here.

By contrast, on the January 15 CNN Newsroom, anchor Kyra Phillips informed viewers: "Meanwhile, human rights groups are accusing Israel of using white phosphorous shells against Hamas targets. And Israel says Hamas is firing rockets that contain the same chemicals. So what is white phosphorus? Well, it's a chemical used in combat dating all the way back to World War I. It ignites once exposed to oxygen, producing a white light and lots of smoke. It can be used to light up a battlefield, hide troop movements, or destroy an enemy's equipment. It's not against international law, but human rights groups say that white phosphorous can injure civilians."

Below is a complete transcript of the report from the Thursday, January 22, CBS Evening News:

KATIE COURIC. BEFORE COMMERCIAL BREAK: And coming up next right here on the CBS Evening News, was it a war crime? Israel's accused of using a horrific new weapon against Hamas.

...

COURIC: Hamas gave a thumbs-down to President Obama today, saying his Middle East policy is no different from President Bush's. Hamas just ended a bloody war with Israel in Gaza, and tonight there is growing evidence the Israelis may have used a banned weapon. Some even accuse them of war crimes. From Gaza, here's Allen Pizzey.

ALLEN PIZZEY: These images are part of what Amnesty International calls indisputable proof the Israeli military illegally used white phosphorus in Gaza. The smoke producing and incendiary chemical is banned in civilian areas because of its intense heat and fumes. The Israelis admit firing 200 white phosphorus shells, but deny breaking international law. The last bombing raid here was a week ago. The area is littered with piece of shrapnel and bits of sticky, gummy brown material like this. Rub it, it bursts into flame and emits an acrid smoke. Distinct characteristics, experts say, of white phosphorous. Saba Halema's hands are an example of the kind of wound white phosphorus inflicts.

DOCTOR NAFEZ ABU SHABAN, AL-SHIFA HOSPITAL CHIEF OF BURN UNIT: In hours, it is becoming much deeper and much wider, plus the smoke comes out from the wound.

PIZZEY: The UN refugee agency says white phosphorus hit its warehouse in the city center.

KAREN ABU ZAYD, UN RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY: You've got people that have said if it looks like white phosphorus, if it acts like white phosphorus, it must be white phosphorous.

PIZZEY: Jodie Clark risked her life to pull a burning shell from under a fuel tanker.

JODIE CLARK, UN RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY: I ran to the workshops. Another shell landed, probably 30 meters in front of me, and then just fireworks burst up from the ground and sprayed pellets of a burning substance all over the place.

PIZZEY: This is part of one of the shells.

CLARK: The fire extinguisher didn't put it out. It continued to burn. And in fact, when we went back an hour later to fight the rest of the fire, it was still burning.

PIZZEY: The Israelis have ordered an inquiry, but human rights groups are calling for an international investigation. Allen Pizzey, CBS News, Gaza City.