Israelis airdrop an occupation

Near the border with Lebanon and Israel, a Lebanese wheat farmer struggles to harvest his crops since Israel fired cluster bombs throughout southern Lebanon during the end of last summer’s war, June 2007. (George Haddad)

BEIRUT, 17 August (IPS) - With an estimated one million unexploded land ordnances meaning lack of access to their lands, many farmers in southern Lebanon see cluster bombs as an Israeli “occupation.”

An estimated 25 percent of cultivated land is now inaccessible in the south. Last summer, Israel pounded Lebanon with over four million cluster bombs and artillery shells that destroyed villages, displaced thousands and wrecked more than 70 percent of the southern economy. Financial losses to the livestock sector alone were estimated at nearly 22 million dollars.

“In the village of Aita al-Shaab (on the border between Lebanon and Israel) there were three farms where all the animals died not just because of the destruction but also because after the villagers left they were without food or water,” says Saada Allaw, a reporter with the Arabic language Lebanese newspaper As-Safir.

Most farmers in the south are small holders who produce primarily for their own consumption and for local trade. More than a third of their income has been lost due to cluster bombs.

“After the war ended we were not allowed to enter our fields until they cleared all the cluster bombs. They found 75 cluster bombs here,” says Rima, a local farmer from the southern town Adloun.

“Usually we make 1,000-1,300 [US] dollars per year from fresh thyme. But this year we missed the planting season.”

Cluster bombs are air or ground launched canisters holding up to 650 bomblets, which often fail to explode on impact. Designed for use against military targets, they sink into the ground or lie on the surface and become virtual landmines. Bomblets hide in tall grasses and in branches of trees and wash down hills after rains to areas already cleared.

“Destroying agriculture is an especially important tactic because farming connects people to the land. Land is the source of livelihood, but it is also where local habits, customs and culture are rooted,” says Rami Zurayk, professor of ecosystem management at the American University of Beirut.

Following international outrage over Israel’s use of cluster bombs during its military campaign, the US Appropriations Committee approved a measure in June, sponsored by Democratic senators Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein, restricting the sale or transfer of cluster bombs.

According to the bill no military funds will be used for such bombs unless the cluster bombs have a failure rate of one percent or less; and the sale or transfer agreement specifies that the cluster bombs will be used only against clearly defined military targets and not where civilians are known to be present.

“Cluster bombs were used during the last 72 hours of Israel’s military operations because they thought it was the way to destroy Hizballah, but in fact they destroyed the villages, people’s lives and their living resources,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“The US is a major supplier of cluster munitions to Israel,” Whitson said. The bombs had been dropped despite an agreement “that bars Israel from using cluster sub-munitions in civilian populated areas.”

Tobacco drying in the sun on a farm in southern Lebanon. Since the last year’s war tobacco is the only product subsidized by the Lebanese government, June 2007. (George Haddad)

Nearly 90 percent of the economy of Aita al-Shaab is based on tobacco farming. “I live from the tobacco harvest,” says a local woman who did not give her name. “We’re still waiting for them to check for cluster bombs, which means I can’t plant, so there won’t be any harvest this year.”

Many farmers expressed outrage over the government’s lack of compensation. Most are indebted after losing their harvest, and do not know what will happen if they are unable to repay their loans. After last year’s war the government offered millions of dollars in loans to tobacco farmers, the only crop the government subsidizes.

“During the last war, the government didn’t offer any economic encouragement for the small businesses, and especially in the villages,” says political analyst Rafi Madayan.

“The Lebanese government should participate with the UN in creating development programs in the villages to provide more assistance to the agricultural sector.”

Earlier this month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced a 3.3 million [US] dollar program to aid southern farmers in improving productivity by focusing on the horticulture and livestock sectors.

“Livestock keepers who lost their animals will be helped to re-stock, while measures will be taken to improve productivity in affected areas,” the FAO said in a statement.

Southern Lebanon is home to some of the country’s poorest. The memory of occupation is strong among the mainly Shia population here.

Israel used cluster munitions in Lebanon during the 1980s. At that time, the United States placed restrictions on their use and then a moratorium on the transfer of cluster munitions to Israel out of concern for civilian casualties. Those weapons used more than two decades ago continue to affect farmers.

“People did not have free access to their land in 1982-2000 during Israeli occupation, and a lot of the area was mined and even till this day the Israelis have refused to turn in the maps of the areas they mined after they withdrew.”

Cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnances have killed at least 30 people and wounded 209 since the 14 August 2006 cessation of hostilities.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.