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Israeli Cluster Munitions Use Examined

Wade Boese

The Department of State recently informed Congress that Israeli use of U.S.-origin cluster munitions in Lebanon last summer might have broken U.S. export rules. Washington has yet to announce if it will take any action against its close ally, but some lawmakers are proposing new U.S. cluster munitions export and use policies.

Responding to an attack by Lebanon-based Hezbollah guerrillas last July, Israel launched a military offensive into its northern neighbor. During the ensuing month-long campaign, Israel employed cluster munitions, which are weapons dropped by aircraft, shot from artillery, or launched by rockets that can scatter up to several hundred small bomblets or grenades over broad areas. The dispersed submunitions sometimes fail to explode as intended, sowing wherever they land with potentially lethal or harmful explosives.

The UN Mine Action Service recently reported that, by mid-February, some 840 cluster munitions strike areas had been identified and that an estimated one million unexploded cluster submunitions litter southern Lebanon. It also noted that 30 deaths and 186 injuries have resulted from the detonation of leftover cluster munitions and other ordnance.

The United States launched an investigation last fall into whether Israel may have used U.S.-supplied cluster munitions in Lebanon contrary to a bilateral export agreement restricting their use. The regulations are secret, but they are generally understood to bar the use of cluster munitions against targets that are in populated areas or that are not strictly military. Washington initially imposed the regulations after previously suspending cluster munitions exports to Israel from 1982 to 1988 following allegations that Israeli forces improperly used such arms in attacks against Lebanese civilians.

In a classified report delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees, the State Department made a preliminary finding that there “could have been some violations” of U.S. export rules during last year’s war, State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said Jan. 29. He told reporters that he would not speculate on actions Congress or the administration might take in response because the investigation was still ongoing.

A State Department official told Arms Control Today Feb. 20 that “we are continuing to gather information.” The official added, “As we learn more, we will take action as appropriate.”

Some lawmakers are not waiting on a final investigation outcome to address the cluster munitions issue. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation Feb. 14 to prohibit U.S. use, sale, or transfer of cluster munitions that have submunitions with failure rates greater than one percent. The bill also requires that cluster munitions only be used against “clearly defined military targets” and not in areas where civilians are present or normally inhabit. The president for national security reasons could waive the first restriction on failure rates, but not the second limitation.

Feinstein and Leahy proposed similar legislation last year as an amendment to the annual defense spending bill, but the Senate rejected it 70-30. Opponents argued the measure might impair U.S. military operations.

U.S. policy since the fall of 2004 has prohibited the Pentagon from procuring new cluster munitions with submunitions that have failure rates greater than one percent. The policy, however, does not forbid U.S. armed forces from using some 5.5 million older, stockpiled cluster munitions that might not meet the higher performance standard.

“The impact of unexploded cluster bombs on civilian populations has been devastating,” Feinstein said Feb. 14, citing estimates that past U.S. use of such weapons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Laos has caused thousands of civilian casualties. She also noted that she had been motivated in part by “recent developments in Lebanon.”

Israeli officials contend they took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, including warnings to noncombatants through leaflets, talks with local leaders, and phone calls to evacuate areas where Hezbollah fighters were present. Still, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initiated a review last November of its cluster munitions use in Lebanon.

David Siegel, a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, told Arms Control Today Feb. 21 that the IDF inquiry was “still underway” but nearing completion. He also said Israel had provided “detailed responses” to U.S. investigators.

In the conflict’s aftermath, Siegel also said Israel had provided assistance “as extensive as possible,” including maps, coordinates, and training, to help locate and clear the cluster munitions remnants. Some UN officials and nongovernmental humanitarian and demining groups have contended that Israel has not given enough specific details to help with the cleanup.

Governments, including the United States, have donated at least $21.5 million for cleaning up and disposing of the cluster submunitions contaminating southern Lebanon. The UN Mine Action Service predicts the work might be completed by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, 46 governments agreed Feb. 23 in Oslo, Norway, to negotiate by 2008 a legally-binding treaty to ban cluster munitions that cause “unacceptable harm to civilians.” Participating countries, which currently do not include Israel or the United States, will meet again in May in Lima, Peru.

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