Cluster Munitions under New Scrutiny

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Israeli military forces and Hezbollah militants ceased fighting in southern Lebanon Aug. 14, but unexploded Israeli ordnance there is still wounding and killing people. The casualties have raised questions about Israel's use of cluster munitions and underscored some long-standing concerns about whether these arms constitute legitimate weapons.

Primarily intended to counter troop and armor concentrations, cluster munitions are bombs, shells, or rockets that can scatter up to hundreds of smaller submunitions over a relatively broad area. As with all bombs, these smaller bomblets can fail to detonate as intended, remaining unexploded and potentially lethal.

Israel used duster munitions during its month-long invasion of Lebanon to destroy and evict Hezbollah militants based there. Israel launched the offensive in response to the July 12 cross-border raid and capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, a radical Shiite organization backed by Syria and Iran. The United States identifies Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

The fierce fighting, which also involved nearly 4,000 Hezbollah rocket attacks against Israel (see page 29), resulted in at least 1,187 deaths in Lebanon, 43 Israeli civilian deaths, and 117 Israeli military deaths, according to a Sept. 12 report by UN secretary-General Kofi Annan. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimated a day before the ceasefire took effect that it had killed at least 530 people it identified as "terrorists." Two days later, the IDF reported that it had conducted some 7,000 aerial strikes and 2,500 naval bombardments against targets in Lebanon.

As of Sept. 13, the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) reported that 482 separate cluster bomb sites had been found in Lebanon, including in residential areas. UNMAS estimated that it would take up to 15 months to clear southern Lebanon of residual cluster bomblets, some of which have been identified as being of U.S. origin.

The unexploded ordnance, also referred to as explosive remnants of war (ERW), is exacting a human toll. A Sept. 18 UNMAS report attributed 79 injuries and 14 deaths to ERW. Leftover cluster munitions inflicted all the casualties, except for five of the injuries.

On Aug. 30, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland blasted Israel's use of cluster munitions, which he said "have affected large areas, lots of homes, lots of farmland, lots of commercial businesses and shops." He condemned as "shocking" and "completely immoral" the fact that an estimated 90 percent of the cluster munitions attacks occurred in the last 72 hours of fighting. "Either a terribly wrong decision was made or.. .one bombed first and started thinking afterwards," he said.

Department of State spokesperson Patricia Peterson told Arms Control Today Sept. 14 that the department was "seeking more information on Israel's alleged improper use" of U.S.-supplied cluster munitions against non-military targets. She said the department takes such allegations "very seriously." Between 1982 and 1988, Washington suspended cluster bomb exports to Israel because of its possible inappropriate use of such weapons in Lebanon.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly characterized Israeli military attacks as restrained and seeking to minimize civilian casualties. In an Aug. 15 statement, the ministry further accused Hezbollah of deliberately deploying and stockpiling its weapons in residential areas. "Had IHezbollah] chosen to set up its arsenal away from populated areas, no civilians would have been hurt when Israel did what it obviously had to do," the ministry stated.

Israel also argued that there is no prohibition against the use of cluster munitions. U.S. forces, for instance, employed cluster munitions during the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.

Some U.S. lawmakers are not happy with current U.S. duster munitions policy and would like to see stricter rules. In September, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif. …