Israel’s 2006 bombing of Lebanon could spur cluster bomb ban

BEIRUT, 18 February (IRIN) - As some 100 nations meet on 18 February to discuss a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has raised its estimate of the bombs and bomblets Israel showered over southern Lebanon in the 2006 war, to as many as 4.6 million.

HRW’s estimate — an increase on the UN figure of about four million — is based on information gathered from Israeli soldiers who re-supplied Multiple Launch Rocket System units with cluster bombs during the July-August 2006. The number is more than were used in recent conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq combined, it said.

Israel fired cluster bombs, either US-supplied or manufactured in Israel, on nearly 1,000 individual strike sites across 1,400 square kilometers of southern Lebanon, an area slightly larger than the US state of Rhode Island.

Each cluster bomb can release up to 2,000 bomblets, and about a quarter of the bomblets failed to explode on impact in Lebanon. Since the war, unexploded bomblets have killed at least 30 people and injured some 200 others.

“The tragedy that has taken place in Lebanon should serve as a catalyst to both national measures and a new international treaty on cluster munitions,” said the HRW report entitled “Flooding South Lebanon: Israel’s Use of Cluster Munitions in Lebanon in July and August 2006,” released on 17 February ahead of the talks.

New Zealand meeting

Representatives from some 100 nations meet in Wellington, New Zealand, on 18 February for final discussions before the Cluster Munition Coalition, launched in November 2003, begins drafting an international treaty banning the use, production and sale of cluster bombs.

The treaty, which is expected to be signed by the end of the year in Oslo, where the process began, would be the most significant advance in the field of disarmament since the 1997 ban on antipersonnel mines. The treaty also sets up a system to help survivors, destroy stockpiles, and help clear contaminated areas.

Israel clears itself

Two reports by the Israeli army clearing itself of breaking international law constituted a “whitewash” justifying the use of cluster bombs, HRW’s Lebanon researcher, Nadim Houry, said.

Israel’s January Winograd Committee report into the conduct of the 2006 war said it found no evidence soldiers fired the weapons at civilians, but did find that their use in built-up areas did not comply with the “rationale” behind Israeli and international cluster bomb restrictions.

Aryeh Mekel, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “Israel’s use of cluster munitions, in summer of 2006 war, was in direct response to acts of aggression perpetrated against its citizens, sovereignty and territorial integrity by the Hizballah terror organization. During the war, Hizballah indiscriminately launched over 4,000 rockets and missiles against Israeli civilians, as well as cluster munitions.

“The use of cluster munitions is not prohibited under international law. Like other weapons, its use is subject to the laws of war. Israel’s operations were directed against legitimate military objectives. The majority of cluster munitions used by Israel were directed against areas which were not built up. In those cases where cluster munitions were used against built up areas, it was done towards rocket/missile launching sites and only after numerous warnings were given to the local population.

“Israel welcomed the decision of the CCW [Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons], which is the relevant and professional body in this regard, to address the humanitarian impact of the use of cluster munitions and begin negotiations on an appropriate instrument.”

“We’re trying to refocus attention in Israel on this issue, to say Israel can’t just turn the page now; international human rights violations were committed,” HRW’s Houry told IRIN.

Israel must investigate publicly, independently and rigorously its “extensive violations” of international law through the “indiscriminate and disproportionate” use of cluster bombs, the HRW report said.

“Investigation should include a thorough examination of whether individual commanders bear responsibility for war crimes — that is, for intentionally or recklessly authorizing or conducting attacks that would indiscriminately or disproportionately harm civilians.”

The HRW report also found that Hizballah fired cluster munitions into populated areas of Israel during the July War, in violation of international humanitarian law. It called for a UN inquiry, given the failure of both Israel and Lebanon to investigate violations during the war.

US called to account

HRW also called on the US to cancel delivery of 1,300 M26 cluster rockets requested by Israel and accept special responsibility for helping to mark and clear the duds in Lebanon, because it supplied most of the cluster bombs and other weapons Israel used there.

Even advanced cluster bombs with supposedly low failure rates left many duds in southern Lebanon, said the HRW report, which was drafted with the help of military and technical experts.

“This experience demonstrates that the “technical solution” of self-destruct mechanisms and required reliability standards promoted by some nations in the Oslo Process is not viable,” HRW said.

Major weapons producing states — including the US, Russia, Israel and China — have opposed the CMC ban, saying they need to keep the option of using cluster bombs for self-defense.

Despite the opposition, CMC officials say the treaty has built up an unstoppable momentum.

“It is now a question of negotiating the strongest treaty possible in order to create the stigmatization of this weapon, as we did with antipersonnel mines,” Simon Conway, director of UK-based Landmine Action and co-chair of the CMC steering committee, told IRIN.

“That way even if the US and others do not sign up to the ban they will find it very hard to justify using these weapons in the future.”

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