On Oct. 23, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an Associated Press story about Israel’s using white phosphorus in its 2006 war with Hezbollah, and assigned to that story the inaccurate headline: “Israel says it used banned shells.”
To its credit, the Inquirer cleared the record with a correction shortly after CAMERA provided editors with information about the legality of white phosphorus:
Error (Philadelphia Inquirer headline to AP article by Ramit Plushnick-Masti, 10/23/06 ): Israel says it used banned shells in war
Correction (10/27/06): A headline Monday incorrectly stated that Israel used “banned” shells during the war with Hezbollah. While the article said the Geneva Conventions ban the use of white phosphorous as an incendiary against civilians or civilian areas, Cabinet Minister Yaakov Edri said Israel used the shells against Hezbollah “in attacks against military targets in open ground.”
White phosphorus is widely recognized as a legal weapon. Indeed, the AP article did not claim it is a banned weapon, but stated only that “the Geneva Conventions ban using white phosphorous against civilians or civilian areas.”
The distinction is significant. If there are prohibitions on using a weapon in certain ways, that does not mean the weapon is “banned.” Note, for example, what Curt Goering, Amnesty International’s senior deputy executive director for policy and programs, wrote of cluster bombs in Sunday’s Christian Science Monitor:
“Cluster munitions are not banned weapons, but their use in civilian areas violates the international ban on the use of indiscriminate weapons” (Oct. 22, “A call to abolish cluster bombs”).
Similar restrictions apply to white phosphorus (see below); however, the AP story did not assert that Israel violated any of those restrictions by, for example, firing the weapons toward concentrations of civilians.
Moreover, a number of sources point out that white phosphorus is not considered a “banned weapon.”
According to Reuters, “the Pentagon says white phosphorus is a conventional munition that is not outlawed or illegal or banned by any convention. It states that it is legal to fire these weapons at enemy fighters ‘out of military necessity and in accordance with the rules of proportionality.'”
And Globalsecurity.org notes that “white phosphorus is not banned by any treaty to which the United States is a signatory.”
Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, an annex to the Geneva Conventions, prohibits making civilians the target of incendiary weapons (such as white phosphorous), and prohibits attacking a military target “located within a concentration of civilians” with such weapons. It does not ban the weapon.
Incidentally, Israel (like the United States) has not ratified this particular protocol, and is therefore not bound by the protocol. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, “treaties bind only those States which have expressed their consent to be bound by them, usually through ratification.”
This is beside the point, though. Even if Israel did ratify the protocol, it would still be permitted to use the weapon against Hezbollah targets away from concentrations of civilians, since the protocol does not ban incendiary weapons.