On October 28th 2006, the London Independent published “Mystery of Israel’s Secret Uranium Bomb,” an article by its star Middle East reporter, Robert Fisk, which suggested that the Israeli army had deployed a “secret new uranium-based weapon in southern Lebanon” during its summer war against Hizballah.
Careful to avoid leveling direct accusations himself, Fisk built his case by quoting uncritically and at length the claims of Dr. Chris Busby, UK Green Party technology spokesman and scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, that evidence gathered from bomb craters at al-Khiam and At-Tiri indicated that the IDF had used either “some novel small experimental nuclear fission device or other experimental weapon (e.g. thermobaric weapon) … [or] a bunker-busting conventional uranium penetrator weapon employing enriched uranium.”
The result, the article intimated, would be a public health catastrophe in Lebanon on a par with the “plague of cancers” which Fisk, despite International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) and World Health Organisation (WHO) findings to the contrary, maintains U.S. use of depleted uranium (DU) is causing in southern Iraq. Israeli denials of uranium-based munitions use in Lebanon were presented as inherently unreliable and “begging more questions than they answered.”
Curiously, Fisk made no mention of the October 12th report by the Amsterdam-based nuclear research and documentation centre, the Laka Foundation, which found “no reason to believe that DU weaponry has been used by Israel during the July/August 2006 war.” And in the months since his article’s publication he has remained resolutely silent on the series of other investigations which have comprehensively discredited the uranium bomb theory. For instance, one week after Fisk’s piece appeared, Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research (NCSR) declared that there were “no signs of radiation as a result of IDF bombing … uranium-based munitions were not used during the recent war.”
Five days later, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) issued a statement confirming that soil samples taken from 32 sites throughout Lebanon showed “no evidence of penetrators or metal made of DU or other radioactive material” and “no depleted uranium, enriched uranium or higher than natural uranium content in the samples.”
More recently on February 26th, representatives of the Lebanese Army, the Arab Atomic Agency, the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission, the IAEA, UNEP and the WHO unanimously agreed at a an NCSR-sponsored symposium that there was no evidence of uranium-based munitions use during the 2006 Lebanon conflict, “depleted, natural, or enriched.”
Of course, corrections and clarifications have never been a feature of Fisk’s reporting on Israel. Most notoriously, he has never properly repudiated the false claims made in his April 2002 articles on the Battle of Jenin in which, despite being in California at the time, he described the “stench of death wafting out from the Palestinian city” and accused “Israel’s undisciplined soldiery” of “running amok,” massacring “hundreds” and concealing the evidence from the world.
Fisk, at first, defended himself by claiming that he never actually described Jenin as a ‘massacre’ and, to be fair to him, this was true. But in writing of “the evidence of mass killings,” the “hundreds of corpses -- some of which disappeared, some of which appear to have been secretly buried” and of an Israeli army “that has not yet finished filling the mass graves of Jenin,” he left no room for doubt as to the impression of events that he wanted to leave. He then attempted to shift to blame for the ‘massacre’ rumour onto Israel, asserting that it was IDF officer, Ron Kitrey, who first spoke of “apparently hundreds” of dead, conveniently ignoring the fact that Kitrey quickly clarified that he was referring to “casualties - those killed or wounded” rather than solely to the number of dead. Today, Fisk defends his second-hand story by arguing that the 52 Palestinian deaths (38 of them terrorist combatants) actually constituted a massacre.
Fisk’s unwillingness to acknowledge his errors is unfortunate given the frequency with which what he calls the “old Fisk prediction machine” gets things so wrong. For example, in March 2003, he told Independent readers that Saddam’s forces were “riding high” and that “the siege of Baghdad would need a quarter of a million men” while, in a follow-up piece on April 2nd, he marveled at the Iraqi preparations for the safeguarding of the city and wondered how the Americans could “batter their way through … defences” which to him seemed “impenetrable.” That Baghdad fell within days came as no surprise to those who remembered that Fisk predicted heavy U.S. losses and a collapse of morale during the 1991 Gulf War as well.
Two weeks later, he took issue with a New York Times’ op-ed by Larry Collins which stated that Hizballah was stockpiling Iranian-made missiles in Lebanon which had the capacity to wreak unprecedented devastation as far south as Haifa. “The missiles are a myth,” sneered Fisk in the London Independent. “I travel the roads of southern Lebanon every two weeks and there are no such missiles.” Hundreds of these mythical missiles rained down on northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War. And after Ariel Sharon’s vow of revenge for al-Qaeda’s attack on Israeli targets in Mombassa the following December, Fisk ominously warned that Jerusalem was taking on “its most dangerous opponent in 54 years,” a “ruthless, highly-motivated, intelligent” force that could prove “more than a match for Israel’s third-rate intelligence men [and] … rabble of an army.” This doom-mongering was made all the more risible by the fact that Fisk had described the IDF as “the Middle East's mightiest army” just six months before.
Fisk’s inability to deal fairly with Israel is showcased in his recently-published 1,300 page apologia pro vita sua, The Great War for Civilisation. He asserts in the preface that a correspondent’s role is to be ‘the first impartial witness to history.’ Yet his narrative, great swathes of which consist of verbatim regurgitations of previously-filed reports littered with misunderstandings, misrepresentations and toe-curling errors of fact, is shaped almost entirely by the highly-partisan historical and political perspectives Osama bin Laden described in November 2004 as “neutral.” According to Fisk, the U.S. is the root of all regional evil, responsible for the crimes of everyone from Saddam to the post-Saddam "resistance," from Palestinian terrorists to Saudi Wahhabists, Algerian death squads, Hizballah, and, of course, al-Qaeda. Even his own near-fatal beating by an Afghan mob in December 2001 is ultimately America’s fault.
But America’s cardinal sin is what Fisk variously describes as its “unwavering,” “uncritical” and “blind support” for Israel, which through the distortion of its policies and the demonization of its leaders, he portrays as an aggressive, neo-colonial outpost in the heart of the Islamic world. For example, the Kahan Commission’s conclusions are misrepresented to paint Ariel Sharon as a bloodthirsty war criminal. Operation Defensive Shield is characterised, not a security response to the slaughter of 66 Israelis in the previous month (Fisk, strangely, gives the figure as 40), but “a new battle to destroy the Palestinian Authority” while the security fence is “a vast wall … carving a de facto annexation into the land.” Menachem Begin is accused of “bestializing” the Palestinians by calling them “two-legged beasts” when he was clearly referring to child-murdering terrorists. Even Yitzhak Rabin is presented as a cynical, land-grabbing brute. For Fisk, the real axis of evil comprises, not the terror-sponsoring, WMD-seeking dictatorships of the world, but the “Likudist” establishment in Jerusalem, Washington’s neo-Conservative cabals and the ‘international Zionist lobby.’
But despite the consistent error of his analysis and the wackiness of his paranoid worldview, Robert Fisk’s work is taken very seriously. He is lionized in Europe, not least here in Ireland where he dominates the airwaves in times of Middle East crisis. And he is, by his own account at least, making inroads into America where, he writes, people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with what he terms the American media’s “craven” reporting on Israel and “subservience” to the White House on Iraq. Regrettably, his words carry weight.
And none more so that those written on the use of uranium-based munitions. Fisk was the first to report on the issue in March 1998 and he has since made it his own, devoting to it numerous newspaper articles and over ten pages of The Great War where he describes it as possibly the West’s “most callous crime against the Middle East, against Arabs, against children.”
Consequently, Fisk’s Israeli uranium bomb story was given great credence, picked up by media outlets from America, Paris and New Dehli to Belgium, Beijing and Canberra. Not to mention throughout the Arab world where the Palestinians have created a receptive audience for such stories by repeatedly accusing Israel of using uranium-based weapons as part of its “genocide” against them.
The London Independent, therefore, has a duty to retract or, at the very least, clarify Fisk’s “Mystery of Israel’s Secret Uranium Bomb.” Its refusal thus far to do so is unfair to its readers and entirely unjust to Israel.