Israel to review cluster bombs

U.S.-made weapons said to have been aimed at civilians in Lebanon

November 21, 2006|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli army's chief of staff has ordered an investigation into the use of cluster bombs during the summer war against Hezbollah in Lebanon after an initial inquiry indicated they were fired into civilian areas in violation of army command orders, military officials said yesterday.

The cluster munitions are estimated by the United Nations to have scattered up to 1 million unexploded anti-personnel bomblets across villages and farmland in southern Lebanon.

The use of the mostly American-made munitions has prompted a State Department investigation and calls for a halt to the use of the bombs from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Since an Aug. 14 cease-fire, 23 people have been killed in southern Lebanon by explosions of cluster bomblets, according to the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center. Unexploded ordnance, mostly of cluster munitions, wounded 136 people, the center said.

Detonated when picked up by curious children or when accidentally touched by farmers in fields and groves, the bomblets have turned large areas into the equivalent of minefields, threatening harvesting and grazing and hindering the return of thousands of people to their homes. Many bomblets have been found in villages, houses and on roads.

In response to earlier queries, the Israeli army said in a statement that cluster bombs are "legal under international law and their use conforms with international standards."

However, the findings of an initial inquiry by a senior army officer indicated that the cluster munitions, delivered by rockets or artillery, were directed at civilian areas in violation of orders from the army command, military officials said.

The chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, appointed Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen, commander of Israel's National Defense College, to conduct an investigation.

Hacohen "was ordered to look into the implementation of all orders and instructions regarding the use of cluster-type munitions in the course of the conflict," an army statement said.

Halutz told reporters yesterday that the orders on cluster bombs had been explicit.

"Undoubtedly one of the things we have to check is how the directive is given and how it is carried out," he said. "We have to see if we did or did not have violations of the agreed guidelines regarding the use" of the bombs.

Israel has secret agreements with the United States dating back to the 1970s that govern the use of American cluster munitions. According to media accounts, the agreements stipulate that the munitions may be used only against clearly defined military targets, not civilian areas.

After a congressional investigation found that Israel had violated the agreements in its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on sales of cluster weapons to Israel.

According to the U.N., 90 percent of the cluster munitions used in the last war were fired during the last three days of the conflict, during a large Israeli ground offensive launched before the cease-fire took effect.

The army said yesterday that the bombs were fired "at legitimate military targets which had been identified as sites from which Katyusha rockets were being launched against Israel."

The cluster munitions were predominantly from old stocks of U.S.-made bombs, according to the rights group Amnesty International, and up to 40 percent of the bomblets failed to explode on impact, according to a U.N. estimate.

The Mine Action Coordination Center says that more than 58,000 unexploded bomblets have been cleared and more than 800 cluster bomb strike sites have been identified. The center estimates it will take a year to 15 months to clear the bomblets from south Lebanon.

Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that Hezbollah had used some cluster munitions against Israel during the war. The guerrilla group fired thousands of rockets at northern Israel, many packed with ball bearings, killing dozens of Israelis and wounding hundreds.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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