Cluster Munitions in Southern Lebanon
Last Friday, Ha'aretz published an article by Meron Rappaport containing testimony from Israel army soldiers regarding the firing of cluster munitions during the recent war. Unsurprisingly, it was not translated into English. Today, a follow-up article was published. The Hebrew edition made reference to the Friday article. The English edition did not. I figured I'd translate the Friday article, as I think it contains important new information, especially the statements from soldiers and from UN officials. Here it is for your perusal.
Edit: a friend pointed out that there was an translation Ha'aretz English. I couldn't find it earlier, hence my translation. Also, I've found in the past that Ha'aretz doesn't translate well and that their translations are politically slanted. Anyway, here is their English edition.
The Small Surprises We Left for the Lebanese
By Meron Rappaport
Hebrew original here.
Hundreds of cluster rockets and bombs were dropped on Lebanon during the war, and have left thousands of unexploded submunitions on the ground - like small land mines that continue to explode and create victims. Army Spokesperson: the Israeli army uses only methods and tools of combat permitted by international law."
S., an reserve soldier from an artillery unit, doesn't feel comfortable with what he did in the second Lebanese war. He fired shells, sometimes at the rate of one a minute. Sometimes they fired 200 shells in a night, sometimes 'only' 50 or 80. S. doesn't know what damage the shells he fired created. He doesn't even know exactly where they were aimed at. Simple artillery soldiers such as himself get co-ordinates, not names of villages. Even the team or battery commanders don't know exactly where they fire to. "Say, how do the villages look there? Destroyed?" S. asked me after I told him I'm in touch with UN personnel patrolling the villages.
What broke S. was that one night his battalion got as its target an entire village. He thinks it was Taybeh, a village in the Eastern sector, but he's not sure. His battalion commander brought them all together and told them that the entire villages had been divided into sections, and each team should 'cleanse' the area it was allocated with shells. No specific targets, just shell the village. "I told myself that those left in the village are probably the weak ones, like in Haifa', said S. "I felt we were behaving like Hizbollah. Taking entire houses and making targets of them. That is terrorism. I used to be orthodox, my soul is important to me. When I hug my girlfriend, I want to feel good about myself. And I don't feel good with what I did during the war. I felt like a zero because I didn't drop my gun and run."
According to the UN, S. has a reason to not feel good about himself. A reserve artillery officer estimated that the Israeli army fired about 160,000 shells during the second Lebanese war. For comparison, Israel fired fewer than 100,000 shells during the entire 1973 October War [which lasted 6 months]. Furthermore, besides the tens of thousands of ordinary, common shells, Israel fired hundreds of cluster bombs and cluster rockets. A cluster bomb or rocket comes apart in the air, near the ground, and scatter tens or hundreds of tiny bomblets, each the size of a large battery, in a radius of up to 100m. Most of these tiny bomblets explode upon reaching the ground, but a significant number do not detonate and become like a type of land mine. UN personnel patrolling Southern Lebanon in the last few days say that large parts of villages and towns there have turned into mine fields.
"Bombs on the Trees"
By last Wednesday, UN mine removers in Southern Lebanon located 450 sites of cluster bomb drops, and that's in populated areas. In open areas, in the fields, the UN says, there are many more. At each of those sites one can find dozens or even hundreds of tiny unexploded bomblets. The UN estimates that there are around 100,000 such tiny land mines scattered around Southern Lebanon. Since the ceasefire 12 civilians have been killed, including two children, as a result of explosions caused by such munitions. 78 have been injured, 22 of them children. Some of those have lost arms and legs.
In the hospital in Tibnin, a town in the Eastern sector, a cluster bomb landed in front of the main hospital gate. A UN mine clearing expert told Human Rights Watch that he counted 100 unexploded bomblets there in 10 minutes, and that he then just stopped counting.
David Shearer, the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon, patrolled on Wednesday in the Tibnin area. "I saw such bomblets on houses, inside houses and next to houses," he tells. "I saw how they remove 16 or 17 such bomblets from a school's football ground. I saw them on the road and in orchards beside the road, hanging from trees." Since the ceasefire, says Shearer, almost every day we get a report on someone killed after stepping on a cluster bomblet, and 3-4 people are injured each day.
According to Dr. Yuval Shani, an expert on International Law in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, there are international treaties forbidding the use of chemical or biological weapons, dum-dum bullets and other types of weapons, but cluster bombs are not in themselves forbidden. Having said that, says Shani, section 57 of the first Geneva Protocol, to which Israel is a signatory, forbids the use of "indiscriminate" weaponry, a suitable definition of cluster bombs. According to Shani, "its is forbidden to use cluster weapons in an area where there are civilians." The only justification for the use of of cluster bombs in such areas is if they are the only available weapon that can be used to achieve the desired military goal and "it's hard to believe that in the hundreds of cases uncovered in Lebanon, cluster bombs were the only possible weapon," says Shani.
The association for civil rights in Israel, that this week filed a request to the government's legal advisor Meny Mazuz to investigate this subject, is even harsher: "the dropping of cluster bombs in built-up areas, while completely ignoring the danger to innocent civilians, establishes in fact the basis for the offense of deliberate killing or deliberate harm to civilians," was written in the request sent by lawyer Sonya Bulus on behalf of the association.
"Whatever They Felt Like"
S. didn't fire cluster bombs, but he heard orders on the comms radio to fire such shells. He also met a friend from another battalion who told him excitedly about cluster shells he fired. His friend's excitement was understandable given that during Israeli army operations, it is rare that such shells are fired. Even in practice, it doesn't happen often. "Cluster shells are fired during practice only in one fire zone in the South of Israel, and that fire zone is treated like a land mine area."
Y., a reserve soldier in the same battalion, fired at least 15 cluster shells. "It was in the last days of the war," he tells "we got orders to fire cluster shells, they didn't tell us where were were firing to - to the village or to an open area. We fired until the forces that asked us to fire told us to stop."
The type of shells used is also surprising. There are two types of cluster shells used in the 155mm batteries: American-manufactured shells, called "matzrash" in the army, and Israeli ones, called "tze'if" [scarf]. Y. learned that with the Israeli ones the percentage of submunitions that end up unexploded, that is the bomblets that turn into land mines, is smaller than with the American shells. Nonetheless, they fired only American shells.
But the majority of damage was apparently done not by the 155mm artillery batteries that S. and Y. fired with. The majority of damage was done by the new rocket launchers, MRLS [multiple launch rocket systems] that the Israeli army used for the first time during the second Lebanese war. In the late 90's, the Israeli army bought from the US 48 such launchers. Each launcher carries 12 missiles that are in fact large cluster bombs. According to the official detail, each such rocket has no less than 644 miniature bomblets that are supposed to drop on a radius of 100m above the target. "Like the area of a football field full of bombs," said a reserve artillery soldier describing the result of a hit.
Y. tells that his battalion commander said that when an Apache helicopter fell over the Naphtali Heights and its two pilots were killed, there were fears that it was hit by such a rocket fired in the area. Later it was clarified that that wasn't the reason, but it made for official confirmation that such rockets were being fired into Southern Lebanon. How many exactly? It's hard to know. UN personnel have no exact data on the distribution of MLRS rockets, American cluster shells or Israeli ones.
Shearer says that it is clear that the majority of the use of MLRS was done in the last 72 hours of the war. "In the beginning of the war there were also reports of the use of cluster bombs," he says, "but they were limited. In the last few days a huge number were fired. It is hard to know where they were aimed at. The scattering of the bombs is so wide that even if the original target was outside a built-up area, many bomblets fell between the houses." Y. and S. confirm this description: "in the last 72 hours we fired all the ammunition we had, all to the same spot," told Y, "we didn't even change the direction of our gun. Friends of mine in the battalion told me that they too fired everything in the last three days: explosive, cluster, light, whatever they felt like."
Members of the UN land mine disposal squads estimate that the proportion of unexploded submunitions in the bombs and rockets fired by Israel was very high, around 40%. That means that every cluster rocket fired to Lebanon left behind more than 250 miniature bomblets, and each shell left behind more than 30 unexploded submunitions. "In the Israeli shells there was supposed to be a mechanism that explodes the unexploded submunitions a short time after they land," says a senior UN official who toured this week in Sidon and Tibnin, "but that mechanism didn't work. They are everywhere - hospitals, schools, and private houses."
It is Impossible to Return to Life
Israel is not the only country to have used cluster bombs. Human Rights Watch claims that the US and the UK make massive use of MLRS rockets during the Second Gulf War, and caused hundreds of casualties among the Iraqi civilian population. The organization estimates that 30 million such miniature bomblets were dropped on Iraq. Seeing this, one can discern hypocrisy in the decision of the American foreign office to open an investigation as to the use Israel made of cluster shells and rockets during the second Lebanese war.
The investigation, whose existence was exposed last week in the New York Times, is meant to determine whether Israel reported to the Americans its use of cluster bombs and whether the targets hit were distinguished from a military perspective, according to the agreement signed between the two countries, when the US began to supply Israel with cluster bombs in the early 70's. A similar investigation, opened after the first Lebanese war, ended up stopping the transfer of such weapons to Israel for six years. The NYT reported that in the last few days of the second Lebanese war, the American government refused to to transfer to Israel an emergency supply of cluster rockets, apparently due to this reason.
The UN land mine dismantling team currently operating in Lebanon came there from Kosovo, where NATO forces made use of cluster bombs. But team members say that in Kosovo the situation was far less terrible and there the UN received from NATO precise maps of the targets where the bombs were fired to. The UN requested such maps from Israel, but the maps it received, according to a senior UN official, "were very general. We need maps with co-ordinates and amounts, so we can find the locations at which bombs fell and how many bombs we should be looking for in each place. I don't believe we will get such maps from Israel."
Shearer says that cluster bombs are the main obstacle in way of restoration of normal life in Lebanon. "The electricity and water can be fixed in two weeks," he says "but 12 or even 15 months will pass until we can turn Southern Lebanon back into a safe area. At the moment residents are scared to return to their homes, the farmers are afraid to return to their fields. It is impossible to return to life like this."
Army Spokesperson: There is no all-out Ban
The Israeli army spokesperson responded that there is no all-out ban in international law on the use of cluster munitions, and even the conventional weapons treaty, to which Israel is a signatory does not include a complete ban on the use of such weapons. Additionally, the Human Rights Watch report states that such weapons are held by 56 states around the world.
The spokesperson office stated that "the Israeli army uses only methods and weapons of war allowed by international law, as opposed to the terror organization operating against Israel, who make cynical use of their obligations to avoid hurting civilians. Hizbollah operates from inside civilian areas and under its protection, and uses it as a 'human shield', while storing rockets and katyusha launchers in residential buildings. By acting as such, Hizbollah forces the Israeli army to operate in civilian areas."
As for the maps, the spokespersons' office stated that "a short time after the ceasefire and with the transfer of cells of areas to UNIFIL and Lebanese army responsibility, maps pointing to areas suspected of containing unexploded munitions of various types were passed to UNIFIL. Additionally, the Israeli army dropped leaflets among the civilian population that moved North during the fighting, warning them that the area is still dangerous, and that they should not return to their houses until UNIFIL and the Lebanese army complete their deployment in the area."
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