There are competing narratives in the debate over whether Israel Defense Forces are using white phosphorus munitions in its bombardment of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Such munitions have been employed since World War I — by Americans since World War II – against the enemy and for general tactical illumination, because its shells, when raining down, can cast a bright white light on targets and troop movements. The shells, packed with phosphorus, release filaments that when exposed to oxygen, ignite and burn anything they land on and can sear flesh right to the bone, turning human beings into what soldiers have coarsely referred to as, “crispy critters.” Armies have long used white phosphorus or “willy pete” against enemy positions, and it’s not illegal. But its use on people, particularly civilian populations, is forbidden by international law and widely considered a war crime.

“The use of white phosphorus is banned as a weapon that causes ‘unnecessary suffering,’ ” according to Mark Ellis, director of the International Bar Association in London, who spoke with the Christian Science Monitor. “It isn’t to be used in civilian areas, or indeed against people since it creates horrible damage to the human body, and unnecessarily so.”

Thus, there are three narratives. Witnesses, including international doctors and human rights groups on the ground, say Israel is indiscriminately using white phosphorus against the densely-packed strip. They say they have seen and treated civilians with severe, horrific wounds indicative of white phosphorus. Newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle have carried hair-raising stories from alleged civilian victims.

“These are very strange types of injuries and burns.We don’t know the type of weapons used which cause these injuries,” Nafaz Abu Shaaban, head of plastic surgery at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City for the past 20 years, told the paper. “The cases we received in the last few days are not usual burns. It’s severe, massive burns, very deep burns. The site of the injury continues to produce smoke and burning for a long time, even after dressing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli military officials have moved between suggestions that white phosphorus is not being used at all, to insisting whatever is being deployed there is within the law. “All weapons used by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) are in accordance with international law,” one Israeli military official told Agence-France Press, without ultimately confirming — nor denying — the use of WP. Then he added, ironically, “we are only using what is being used by other Western armies — we are not using anything out of the ordinary.” (He no doubt is referring to the American use of WP, later admitted to by the Pentagon, against enemy combatants in the battle of Fallujah).

The third narrative actually backs up the Israelis. The International Committee of the Red Cross, not usually a reliable witness for war hawks, said most recently that the Israelis are indeed using phosphorus, but not illegally. “In some of the strikes in Gaza it’s pretty clear that phosphorus was used,” Peter Herby, head of the ICRC arms-mines unit told The Associated Press. “But it’s not very unusual to use phosphorus to create smoke or illuminate a target. We have no evidence to suggest it’s being used in any other way.”

However, according to the AP, “Herby said evidence is still limited because of the difficulties of gaining access to Gaza.”

Therein lies the root of problem. The Israelis may be targeting civilian areas like refugee camps with WP munitions — or they may not be. Palestinians and their advocates may be ginning up the number and the severity of burn victims, or the Israelis could be significantly playing the human toll down. As a journalist, this is what I find incredibly mindblowing, and deeply appalling: that we have no idea what is really going on in Gaza because the Israelis have banned all foreign reporters from doing their jobs, and as an institution, the American Fourth Estate seems unwilling to fight it.

So, it is up to bloggers, Arab journalists and activists already in Gaza– including non-stop coverage from Al Jazeera – to tell the story. And we all know what the cherished American opinion-makers and the various mainstream media filters think about the legitimacy of those sources. Other than that, there are the official declarations by the Israeli government and its western surrogates, upon which U.S mainstream reporters depend a great deal, particularly for the more than generous access to leaders, front lines and civilian areas — on the Israeli side.

The frustration is growing, throughout journalist enclaves, but it’s not sufficiently enough to call it outrage. The fatuous and provincial American mainstream media seems to cower from the inherent religious and political minefield the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presents, so it is covering it at an embarrassing minimum and at a distance. The fact foreign media is being banned from Gaza by the invading IDF seems unworthy of serious discussion by the media elite. So this international story, which has not only changed the course of the so-called peace process profoundly, but could have unknown, disastrous effects on U.S relations with other Muslim countries in the region — including Iraq and Iran — is reduced to a bizarre side show, slightly more sophisticated (thanks to the stringers on the ground working with the big papers, providing the color) than the usual “he said, she said,” nut graf.

It is in this pathetic vacuum that someone like “Joe the Plumber” could rise to the occasion — not to condemn the audacious edict preventing reporters from doing their jobs (seeking out the truth, checking facts against the official press releases, getting the pictures the world wants to see) but to defend it.

I commend CNN for its brave attempt to bring the phosphorus story to a wider American audience (they’ve run stories on more than one day, with extended packages on CNN International) — that should be said — but it truly remains to be seen whether the Fourth Estate, so quick to glorify and sanctify its roots here as a force that’s made a difference, will get off its fat arse and do its job.