HRW: US should cut off cluster-bomb sales to Israel

Cluster bombs gathered to be destroyed by mine sweepers in the suburbs of Tyre city in southern Lebanon, 6 October 2006. Unexploded ordnance in southern Lebanon continues to pose great risks to civilians returning to their villages, according to the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC). It estimates that there are at least one million unexploded cluster bomblets in the area. (Manoocher Deghati/IRIN)

Preliminary US government findings that Israel violated agreements with the United States by its use of cluster munitions in Lebanon last summer should lead to an immediate cutoff of all US cluster munitions sales to Israel, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Bush administration is expected to report to Congress today on a State Department investigation into the use of US-made cluster munitions by Israel. Demining groups estimate that Israel used cluster munitions containing some 2.6 to 4 million submunitions in Lebanon, the majority of which were produced in the United States. Israel’s use of cluster munitions was the most extensive anywhere in the world since the 1991 Gulf War.

“We’ve investigated cluster munitions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but we’ve never seen use of cluster munitions that was so extensive and dangerous to civilians,” said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch. “The issue is not whether Israel used the American cluster munitions lawfully, but what the US is going to do about it.”

Human Rights Watch also urged the US government to require that Israel make public detailed information regarding the quantities, types, and locations where US-made cluster munitions were used. Efforts to clear these deadly remnants of war have been delayed by Israel’s refusal to provide such information to demining agencies.

The Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on cluster-weapon sales to Israel in 1982, after a Congressional investigation found that Israel had used the weapons in populated areas during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The current controversy surrounding the sale of US cluster munitions to Israel erupted in August 2006 when Israel requested that the US expedite delivery of over 1,300 surface-launched M26 artillery rockets for use in Lebanon.

On February 22-23, about 40 nations will convene in Oslo, Norway to begin a process to negotiate a new international treaty prohibiting cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. At least 74 nations currently maintain such stockpiles. In the past, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel have made extensive use of cluster munitions, but many other nations may do so if the weapon is not regulated.

“There’s a growing international consensus about the dangers to civilians of cluster munitions,” said Goose. “The US government should be joining the trend, not bucking it. Banning cluster munition sales to Israel, or any other nation, would be an important first step.”

Human Rights Watch’s extensive field research in Lebanon this past summer showed that the Israeli military launched many of its cluster munition attacks at or near towns and villages, in some cases against Hezbollah forces, but in many other cases with no evident military objective, according to Israel Defense Force testimony. Many of these towns and villages remained populated by civilians, whose presence would need to be taken into account before launching attacks.

Many of the cluster munitions used by Israel also failed to explode, leaving behind an estimated 1 million dud submunitions that are still at risk of exploding. Dud submunitions from cluster munitions have killed more than 30 people since the end of the war and injured another 184.

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