From an initial average of three accidents a day in the immediate aftermath of the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, the rate has fallen to an average of three accidents per week.
“Over the past three weeks, the rate of casualties has been as low as two victims in one week,” said Dalya Farran, media and post-clearance officer for the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre for South Lebanon (MACC).
Farran said the low rate was because MACC-coordinated teams were now working at their full capacity. “There are at least 50 clearance teams working in south Lebanon now. And, in particular, the response has become much more rapid over recent weeks,” she said.
Another reason for the lower rate of casualties now is that clearance teams had prioritised inhabited areas - such as houses, roadsides and civilian infrastructure - during their first months of work in Lebanon, Farran said.
“More than 80,000 bomblets have been cleared, and the threat posed by bombs in civilian infrastructure areas is now definitely under control,” she said.
However, with at least 900,000 bomblets still contaminating southern Lebanon, according to MACC, there is still a high risk to inhabitants of the area.
“There may be fewer bombs in my village, but as soon as you go into the fields it’s really dangerous,” said 17-year-old Musa Sheikh Ali from Maroun al-Ras, 110 km south of Beirut. “Months after the war came to an end, we still can’t live in peace.”
Farmers are the most affected by the continued unexploded ordnance (UXO) threat. Agriculture forms about 70 percent of southern Lebanon’s economy. The presence of cluster bombs across fields has meant farmers have either faced the prospect of losing their harvests for the year or taken the life-threatening risk of working on their land regardless.
“Farmers in our area have had to continue working. How else are they going to feed their families?” asked Ali.
As of 14 December, of the 161 civilian deaths and injuries that post-war cluster bomb explosions had caused, 148 were males - and 19 have been fatal.
In southern Lebanon, farmers’ sons traditionally help during harvests, rendering them equally likely to be injured or killed by a cluster bomb in spite of being minors.
“The majority of the injuries and deaths from cluster bomb explosions have occurred among farmers and young males,” said MACC’s Farran, adding that changing weather conditions have exacerbated an already dangerous situation. “The rain has covered up many of the bomblets, making visibility even worse as they sink beneath the soil’s surface.”
Cluster bomb controversy
Ever since hostilities ended between Israel and Hezbollah on 14 August, Israel has been criticised by the international community over its use of cluster munitions in Lebanon, particularly as 90 percent of the bombs were fired in the last 72 hours when an end to the conflict was within sight.
On 30 August, the then UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs Jan Egeland described this use of cluster munitions as “completely immoral”.
Also controversial has been the use of old munitions with a higher than normal failure rate. MACC estimates that the failure rate of the bomblets Israel dropped ranged from 25 to 40 percent.
“Among the bombs are the Israeli-made M85, which would usually feature a self-destruction mechanism were the bomb not to explode on landing. Even that didn’t work in many cases,” said Farran.
However, the majority of unexploded bombs that the de-mining teams are encountering are the US-made M42 and M77 models. According to a 14 November article in Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel used cheaper, unsafe US-made cluster bombs in Lebanon owing to budgetary concerns.
Israel has insisted that all the weaponry it used during the 33-day summer war was in compliance with international law. However, Lt Gen Dan Halutz, Chief Of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), in November ordered an investigation into the military’s use of cluster bombs during the war, specifically the IDF’s Northern Command unit.
A month earlier, the US State Department launched an inquiry into whether Israel misused US-made cluster bombs in Lebanon. The investigation is looking into what munitions were used and whether they were used against non-military targets.
Washington has supplied Israel with cluster bombs since the 1970s on the understanding that they would only be used against defined military targets.
There is no law or convention banning the use of cluster munitions. However, a pre-existing international campaign spearheaded by the human rights community to ban them, based on their high post-conflict threat on civilians, was given a boost following the summer war.
On 4 December, Egeland said during a meeting of the UN Security Council that “the use of cluster munitions by anyone, anywhere in the world is immoral”.
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