WASHINGTON — Reflecting growing discontent in Washington with Israel’s use of American-made cluster bombs in heavily populated areas of Lebanon, two leading Democratic senators this week introduced legislation that would require recipients of such munitions not to use them in or near civilian centers.
Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont this week introduced the Cluster Munitions Amendment. The measure, an amendment to the 2007 defense appropriations bill, would prevent Department of Defense funds from being spent to transfer cluster bombs to foreign countries, unless the Pentagon ensures that such bombs do not jeopardize civilians.
The two Democratic lawmakers, members of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, identified Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon as an “example” or a “factor” in proposing the amendment. “The recent experience in Lebanon is only the latest example of the appalling human toll of injury and death,” Leahy said in a joint press release, issued Tuesday evening with Feinstein.
Sources familiar with the legislation, however, said that the measure was clearly triggered by Israel’s recent use in Lebanon of the American-made artillery shells filled with small bomblets.
The proposed legislation requires the Pentagon to devise clear rules of engagement ensuring that American forces — or foreign armies — do not use cluster bombs against civilians, but sources familiar with the legislation said that it was mainly directed at the recent use of such bombs by Israel in Lebanon.
Congressional sources, as well as several senior officials with national Jewish organizations, said that many officials in Washington — both in the administration and on Capitol Hill — are unhappy about the way in which Israel used cluster bombs in Lebanon. Some believe that Israel may have violated an American-Israeli agreement, the details of which never have been published, regarding the terms of the use of the munitions, sources said. Some government officials are concerned about the impact on America’s image abroad of the continued explosions of small American-made bombs in civilian neighborhoods in an Arab country that the Bush administration considers friendly to America. This concern was echoed in a statement by Feinstein, who said, “Unexploded cluster bombs fuel anger and resentment and make security, stabilization and reconstruction efforts that much harder.”
According to data collected by the United Nations’ Mine Action Coordination Centre of South Lebanon and by human rights organizations, Israel used many thousands of cluster rounds in its shelling of southern Lebanon in July and August, leaving behind tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of unexploded bomblets. The U.N. center reported this week that it has “confirmed and recorded” 434 cluster bomb strike locations in southern Lebanon, each hit by multiple cluster shells. Each such artillery shell contains dozens of small bomblets that are spread over a radius of some 220 yards. Most explode upon impact, but many don’t. According to the U.N. data, more than 10,000 cluster bomblets were found and destroyed by U.N. staff and by Lebanese Army bomb specialists in southern Lebanon since the August 14 cease-fire came into effect.
So far, such duds have caused 12 deaths, as well as injuries to 51 people, during the two-and-a-half weeks that passed between August 14 and September 2, according to the data.
In the joint press release, Feinstein and Leahy pointed out that civilians were killed by cluster bombs that American forces used in Afghanistan and in Iraq, both in the first Gulf War and in 2003, as well as in Laos during the 1960s and ’70s.
Human rights organizations argue that Israel’s use of the cluster bombs in southern Lebanon clearly violated international law. This week, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel joined Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in contending that using such munitions in civilian areas constitutes “an extremely severe violation of the basic principle upon which humanitarian law is based.” In a letter to Israeli Attorney General Menahem Mazuz, the Israeli group wrote that the use of these bombs near civilian population centers is illegal on two counts. First, these munitions are characterized by a widespread pattern, and therefore they put at risk individuals in areas far removed from a pinpointed target such as a rocket launcher. Second, their failure rate is high. According to some reports, 14% of the American-made cluster bomblets do not explode upon impact, and therefore they create an above-ground mine field of sorts in the area that they hit. Other reports say that the failure rate can be as high as 40%.
Responding to the growing criticism, the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a legal brief August 5 saying that the Israel Defense Forces only zeroed in on Hezbollah military targets during the war. “The IDF does not deliberately attack civilians and takes steps to minimize any incidental collateral harm by warning them in advance of an action, even at the expense of losing the element of surprise,” it stated.
The brief pointed out that Hezbollah used “human shields” during the war, in violation of international law. It also said that unexploded ordnances were not only left in Lebanon but also in Israel, where many rockets fired by Hezbollah did not explode immediately.
America’s export of cluster munitions to Israel has a bumpy history. In the early 1980s, when the United States concluded that Israel had violated the agreement on using cluster bombs during its war in Lebanon in 1982, the Reagan administration suspended shipments of the weapon to Israel for six years. Last month, the State Department confirmed reports that it was “looking into” the circumstances in which Israel used these bombs in Lebanon. Israel also uses cluster bombs that its military industry produces, as well as ones bought from Britain.