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Media Analyses





Cloud of Questions Over Ha'aretz's White Phosphorous Story


If the prominent, page-one headline and lead article in Ha'aretz today are to be believed, Human Rights Watch's March 2009 report accusing Israel of the indiscriminate use of white phosphorous against the civilian population during the Gaza Strip fighting last winter — a war crime — got a slight boost.

The double-decker headline, spanning six columns, announces: "Two IDF officers disciplined for using white phosphorous in Gaza offensive." The subhead gives additional detail: "Army's internal probe into shelling of UNRWA facility found that two officers 'exceeded their authority in a manner that jeopardized the lives of others.'" The headlines are followed by a five-column AFP photograph depicting exploding white phosphorous shells over the Gaza Strip, with inset headshots of Ilan Malka, Yoav Gallant, and Eyal Eisenberg (the two officers allegedly involved and the head of the southern command).

The article by Anshel Pfeffer (not pictured above, it begins below the photograph), begins:

An Israel Defense Forces brigadier general and another officer with the rank of colonel endangered human life during last year's military campaign in the Gaza Strip by firing white phosphorous munitions in the direction of a compound run by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the Israeli government says.

The finding acknowledges, at least in part, allegations by international organizations. It was contained in a report that the government provided to the United Nations over the weekend in response to last September's Goldstone Commission report.

Gaza Division Commander Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg and Givati Brigade Commander Col. Ilan Malka, were the subject of disciplinary action by GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant after headquarters staff found that the men exceeded their authority in approving the use of phosphorous shells that endangered human life, the Israeli government report said.

But the report ("Gaza Operation Investigations: An Update") does not say all that. First, while the report does give the ranks of the two officers who were disciplined, it does not give their names. While the Ha'aretz reporter might have gotten a scoop by learning their names, or might simply have figured it out by checking who had been involved with incident, he was wrong to attribute the names to the government report. Moreover, the report does not explicitly say that the men were disciplined in connection to their use or misuse of white phosphorous. Rather, the paragraph in question (108) states:

One of these incidents involved alleged damage to the UNRWA field office compound in Tel El Hawa.102 The special command investigation revealed that, during the course of a military operation in Tel El Hawa, IDF forces fired several artillery shells in violation of the rules of engagement prohibiting use of such artillery near populated areas. Based on these findings, the Commander of the Southern Command disciplined a Brigadier General and a Colonel for exceeding their authority in a manner that jeopardized the lives of others. (Emphasis added.)

Paragraph 100 of the report also refers to two officers breaking rules of engagement and being disciplined, but again the cited violation referred only to "the use of artillery fire near populated areas," and did not mention white phosphorous:

The special command investigations also uncovered some instances where IDF soldiers and officers violated the rules of engagement. For example, in one case, a Brigadier General and a Colonel had authorized the firing of explosive shells which landed in a populated area, in violation of IDF orders limiting the use of artillery fire near populated areas. The Commander of the Southern Command disciplined the two officers for exceeding their authority in a manner that jeopardized the lives of others.

Furthermore, a later section of the report (117-120) dealing with the use of white phosphorous found:

(v) The use of weaponry containing phosphorous

117. This investigation dealt with the use of weapons containing phosphorous by IDF forces during the Gaza Operation. The investigation focused on the different types and number of weapons containing phosphorous used during the Operation, the purposes for which they were used, the applicable professional instructions and rules of engagement, and the extent of compliance with those instructions and rules. Some of the findings of the special command investigation are detailed in The Operation in Gaza

118. The Military Advocate General reviewed the entire record of the special command investigation. With respect to exploding munitions containing white phosphorous, the Military Advocate General concluded that the use of this weapon in the operation was consistent with Israel’s obligations under international law.

119. With respect to smoke projectiles, the Military Advocate General found that international law does not prohibit use of smoke projectiles containing phosphorous. Specifically, such projectiles are not “incendiary weapons,” within the meaning of the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons, because they are not primarily designed to set fire or to burn. The Military Advocate General further determined that during the Gaza Operation, the IDF used such smoke projectiles for military purposes only, for instance to camouflage IDF armor forces from Hamas’s antitank units by creating smoke screens.

120. The Military Advocate General found no grounds to take disciplinary or other measures for the IDF’s use of weapons containing phosphorous, which involved no violation of the Law of Armed Conflict. Nevertheless, the Military Advocate General’s opinion did not address a number of specific complaints that were received after the investigation concluded and which are being investigated separately.

Amos Harel, Pfeffer's colleague at Ha'aretz, a respected military correspondent, tellingly does not make the same assertion that a disciplinary action against officer was in response to anything connected to white phosphorous. In his sidebar on the front-page story (the gray boxed text in the image above), he carefully and accurately reports:

The most remarkable details concern the one time disciplinary measures were taken [sic] against senior Israeli commanders in the operation: Following what he saw as unjustified artillery fire at a Hamas compound in the Gaza City neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa, GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant decided to officially reprimand two officers: a brigadier-general and a colonel.

Their names and the details of the reprimand are not specifically mentioned in the report.

So how did Pfeffer conclude that the two officers "endangered human life during last year's military campaign in the Gaza Strip by firing white phosphorous munitions" and that the two men were therefore "the subject of disciplinary action"? He was apparently relying on the footnote (number 102) which appears in paragraph 108 of the "Update" report (reproduced above) which states: "IDF forces fired several artillery shells in violation of the rules of engagement prohibiting use of such artillery near populated areas." The footnote refers readers to paragraphs 431-437 of a July 2009 extensive report issued by the Israeli army about Operation Cast Lead ("The Operation in Gaza: Factual and Legal Aspects"). Those paragraphs deal at length about the army's use of white phosphorous close to the aforementioned UNRWA facility at the same Jan. 15, 2009 incident in Tel Al Hawa. That report's conclusions about the use of white phosphorous at Tel Al Hawa were:

In conclusion, the incident took place during intense fighting, which involved Hamas’ deployment of anti-tank units equipped with advanced anti-tank missiles north of the UNRWA compound.  Hamas thus placed the compound between themselves and the IDF forces.(266) The IDF implemented an effective smokescreen as a protective measure in response to this threat.  The operational advantage of using the smokescreen was significant.  The IDF anticipated that the risk to civilians and civilian objects was limited in relation to this operational advantage.  Unfortunately, however, three individuals were injured and U.N. facilities were damaged.

For whatever reason, Anshel Pfeffer's original article which appeared in today's print edition (image above) is no longer available online, not even in a cached version. It can nevertheless be viewed at IMRA's Web site.

The Plot Thickens: Denials and Obfuscations

While Pfeffer's original article, which normally would still be available to online readers who click on the "Print Edition" option of the Ha'aretz site is no longer available, an updated article by Anshel Pfeffer is. Entitled "IDF denies disciplining top officers over white phosphorous use in Gaza war," the article begins:

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday denied that two of its senior officers had been summoned for disciplinary action after headquarters staff found that the men exceeded their authority in approving the use of phosphorus shells during last year's military campaign in the Gaza Strip, as the Israeli government wrote in a recent report.

In an official response provided to the United Nations over the weekend in response to last September's Goldstone Commission report, the government said that a brigadier general and another officer with the rank of colonel endangered human life during by [sic] firing white phosphorous munitions in the direction of a compound run by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

The government finding acknowledges, at least in part, allegations by international organizations. But the IDF on Monday flatly denied that Division Commander Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg and Givati Brigade Commander Col. Ilan Malka been subject to disciplinary action by GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant.

It's true that the army today denied that soldiers were disciplined for the use of white phosphorous. CAMERA spoke with Capt. Barak Raz, head of the North American Desk of the Foreign Press Branch of the IDF Spokesmen's Unit, and he clarified that that just as the report explicitly states, the disciplinary action relates to the unjustified use of artillery shell, and has nothing to do with the use of white phosphorous. Yet, Pfeffer's updated article about the army's denial simply restates as fact that the "Israeli government wrote in a recent report" that the "two of its senior officers had been summoned for disciplinary action after headquarters staff found that the men exceeded their authority in approving the use of phosphorous shells. . . . " Similarly, the second paragraph of the "updated" article reiterates that in its report to the United Nations this weekend "the government said the the brigadier general and another officer with the rank of colonel endangered human life during by fired white phosphorous munitions." Far from providing any corrective information, the new article only rehashes the original falsehood regarding the report's contents.

International Media Reverberations

As in the past, inaccurate reports originating in Ha'aretz influence other Western media outlets. Other media outlets, such as London Times and BBC, now also associate the disciplinary action with the improper use of white phosphorous. The New York Times, on the other hand, was more careful and accurate.

Update: Feb. 2, 2010, The Problem Recurs

In his page two article today ("IDF downplays action against officers"), Anshel Pfeffer again makes the same error, incorrectly claiming that the Israeli report handed to the U.N. last weekend says that Eisenberg and Malka were disciplined for their use of white phosphorous. The fifth paragraph reads:

The IDF Spokesman's Office said yesterday that contrary to the reports provided by the government to the United Nations on Friday, which stated that Eisenberg and Malka were disciplined for using smoke shells containing white phosphorus, they were disciplined not for using the phosphorous shells but rather for giving the authorization to fire regular artillery shells.

Feb. 3, 2010 Update: Backtracking, But No Correction

Anshel Pfeffer's article today again refers to the disciplinary action against the two officers, but does not connect the reprimand to the use of white phosphorous. He correctly writes: "Senior reserve officers criticicized the IDF yesterday for not revealing it had reprimanded two senior officers for exceeding their authority in using artillery during the operation." Today's accurate reporting does not exculpate Ha'aretz for earlier incorrect reports. Ha'aretz still owes its readers a correction.
 
In an indication of how the initial false headline and report is continuing to do its damage, a Jerusalem Post editorial yesterday incorrectly stated that "the IDF had disciplined a brigadier-general and a colonel for exceeding their authority, because they employed white phosphorus shells in a comparatively confined area where civilians could be jeopardized."

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