When white phosphorus was used by Saddam Hussein, the weapon was identified by U.S. intelligence as a “chemical weapon.”
The New York Times (3/22/95) seemed to concur; In an article noting that white phosphorus was technically classified as an “incendiary weapon,” the paper nonetheless described it as one of “the worst chemical weapons” in existence: a “waxy substance [that] adheres to flesh, and when it is exposed to air, it bursts into flame.”
As Seth Ackerman observed in an article for FAIR’s magazine Extra! (3/4/06), in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, “U.S. media vividly evoked the cruel effects” of such unconventional weapons used by Hussein’s regime.
The Times‘ reporting on Israel’s recent use of white phosphorus in Gaza has taken quite a different tone. Yesterday, for instance, the New York Times described white phosphorus as “an obscurant used in military conflicts that can be dangerous for civilians under certain circumstances.”
As Ackerman’s article documented, newspapers like the Times have long exhibited a very different standards when it comes to U.S. and Israeli use of the substance that was considered one of “the worst chemical weapons” in the days when it was known as part of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal.
However, today, the Times‘ double standards on white phosphorus faced a curious challenge. As the fallout over Israel’s documented use of white phosphorus in the shelling of the U.N. compound yesterday continued to make world headlines, the Israeli police’s alleged that Hamas had fired a white phosphorus shell at Israel.
The New York Times responded with an unusually long explanation of both the incendiary substance’s acceptable and unacceptable applications:
White phosphorus is a standard, legal weapon in armies, long used as a way to light up an area or to create a thick white smoke screen to obscure troop movements. While using it against civilians, or in an area where many civilians are likely to be affected, can be a violation of international law, Israel has denied using the substance improperly. On Wednesday, Hamas fired a phosphorus mortar shell into Israel, but no one was hurt.