Those of you who remember my coverage of the Lebanon war will remember the stories about the IDF’s virtual carpet bombing of southern Lebanon with cluster bombs. I called them the “gift that keeps on giving” because of the numerous civilian casualties caused during and after the war by the duds which never exploded on impact. The Times reports that 30 Lebanese have died, mostly children, and 180 have been injured since the war ended. Last summer, Israeli journalists and analysts speculated that such offensive use in civilian areas violated a U.S. agreement Israel pledged to adhere to banning their use in such circumstances.
Well, quel surprise! The U.S. is just now, six months after the fact, getting around to saying: “Well, heck it looks like the IDF kinda did a bad thing there maybe:”
The Bush administration will inform Congress on Monday that Israel may have violated agreements with the United States when it fired American-supplied cluster munitions into southern Lebanon during its fight with Hezbollah last summer, the State Department said Saturday.
Notice the authoritativeness of that “may have.” Of course, what the statement means is that everyone knows that Israel is as guilty as sin of breaking the agreement. It’s just a question of whether we can sidle around it to exonerate the IDF without making the whole episode look like a charade:
Midlevel officials at the Pentagon and the State Department have argued that Israel violated American prohibitions on using cluster munitions against populated areas, according to officials who described the deliberations. But other officials in both departments contend that Israel’s use of the weapons was for self-defense and aimed at stopping the Hezbollah rocket attacks that killed 159 Israeli citizens and at worst was only a technical violation.
Any sanctions against Israel would be an extraordinary move by the Bush administration, a strong backer of Israel, and several officials said they expected little further action, if any, on the matter…
Another administration official said the investigation had caused “head-butting” involving the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, as well as Pentagon arms sales officials. Some officials “are trying to find a way to not have to call this a substantial violation,” the official said.
So ‘mid-level’ officials, always the ones who do the heavy-lifting and are closest to the action, are convinced of Israel’s guilt. But their ‘betters’ (that would be Cheney &/or Rice and friends), the temporizers and fixers are doing their best to head ’em off at the pass. And you can be sure that AIPAC’s getting their fingers into this pie as well since leveling sanctions against Israel would be a serious added blow to Israel in the aftermath of her abject failure in the Lebanon war.
So what, if anything, did Israel do wrong and what are the U.S. rules governing their use?
…Officials said that the agreements specified that cluster weapons could not be used in populated areas, in part because of the risk to civilians after a conflict is over if the bomblets fail to self-destruct, as they are designed to do.
The agreements said the munitions be used only against organized armies and clearly defined military targets under conditions similar to the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, when Israel arguably faced threats to its survival, officials said.
Since the end of last summer’s war, de-mining team have located 800 cluster-bomb strike areas, and they destroyed 95,000 bomblets, said Christopher Clark, program manager for the United Nations Mine Action Service in Lebanon.
“We found them pretty much everywhere — in villages, at road junctions, in olive groves and on banana plantations,” Mr. Clark said.
Did Israel fire them on populated, civilian areas? Unequivocally yes, besides the sentence above I’ve read other accounts by experts on the ground who’ve found them in people’s homes, on their roofs, front porches, etc. In short, the bomblets fell everywhere–including where civilians, especially children congregate.
You’ll notice how both the U.S. Administration and Israel obfuscate in their reply to the charges:
Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said…“It is important to remember the kind of war Hezbollah waged,” he said. “They used innocent civilians as a way to shield their fighters.”
But the U.S. protocol doesn’t say that Israel is allowed to use cluster bombs if its enemy fights from civilian areas. It says no use of the weapons in civilian areas, PERIOD.
The Israeli defense:
Before firing at rocket sites in towns and villages, the Israeli report [submitted to the U.S. to justify use of the weapons] said, the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning civilians of the attacks. The report, which has not previously been disclosed, also noted that many of the villages were deserted because civilians had fled the fighting, the officials said.
Again, the original protocol doesn’t allow Israel to use the munition on civilian areas if Israel makes an effort, however half-hearted it might be, to remove said civilians from the zone. Further, at a time when the IAF was strafing almost everything that moved on Lebanese roads killing many fleeing refugees in the process, many civilians preferred to stay put and not leave their homes. So merely leafletting a village to warn residents to flee was a cruel joke to those who cowered in fear at the thought of leaving OR staying–seeing both as equally awful choices. Don’t you just love Israel’s presumptuous claim that there were no civilians in those villages because they’d all fled. If that’s so, then how did Israel manage to kill so many civilians in so many southern Lebanese villages during the war? You’ve all heard the names like Qana before. Did Hamas truck the civilians in so that Israel could kill them and give Hezbollah a propaganda coup??
Let’s leave aside the moral or legal discussion here and ask about tactical success. Did use of cluster bombs serve any purpose in the fighting? Even there the answer is no:
Israel has told the State Department that it originally tried targeted strikes against Hezbollah rocket sites, but those proved ineffective.
Heavy use of cluster bombs was tried instead, to kill or maim Hezbollah fighters manning the launchers. Israeli commanders employed cluster weapons because they suspected that they would flee after firing their rockets. Even those attacks failed to stop the rockets barrages.
What this article omits is that at the point when the artillery units realized cluster bombs were ineffective instead of abandoning the tactic, they received orders to fire all their munitions, including the cluster bombs into the south. And instead of it being pinpoint firing on an intended target, it was almost as if the IDF was holding an artillery fire sale at southern Lebanon’s expense, saying: “Everything’s gotta go.” Lest you think I’m levelling a calumny (would that it were so), Meron Rapaport in Haaretz has done the heavy-lifting for us on this one. Here he interviews Y., a reservist in an artillery unit that fought in the war:
Y., a reservist in the same battalion, fired at least 15 cluster shells. “It was in the last days of the war,” he says. “They gave us orders to fire them. They didn’t tell us where we were firing – if it was at a village or at open terrain. We fired until the forces that requested the shelling asked us to stop.”
…[David] Shearer [UN humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon] says it’s clear that most use of the cluster weapons was made in the final 72 hours of the war. “In the beginning of the war, too, there were reports on the use of cluster bombs,” he says. “But only a few. In the three last days, a tremendous amount of them were fired. It’s also hard to know where they were aimed. The dispersion of the bombs is so wide that even if the original target were outside a populated area, many bombs fell amid the houses.”
Y. and S. confirm this appraisal of events. “In the last 72 hours we fired all the munitions we had, all at the same spot,” says Y. “We didn’t even alter the direction of the gun. Friends of mine in the battalion told me they also fired everything in the last three days – ordinary shells, clusters, whatever they had.”
One wonders why, in the last 3 days of a war that was cleary winding down and in which there was little Israel could do to better its position, would Israel decide to fire all its munitions, including cluster bombs? It served no strategic or even tactical purpose since the IDF had admitted the weapons were not effective for the purpose they were used. Can anyone doubt that this was not only an immoral act (as another IDF gunner interviewed in the article says, “that’s terror”), but one that betrays the utterly bankrupt nature of the IDF’s military strategy, such as there was, for this campaign?
As a result of stories such as this:
Israel’s Channel 2 television reported in December that the military’s judge advocate general was gathering evidence for possible criminal charges against military officers who might have ordered cluster bombs fired into populated areas.
So here we have the odd situation in which the U.S. may absolve Israel of any culpability for a heinous, immoral abuse of a U.S. weapon, while Israeli military justice (a notoriously porous source of justice when it comes to punishing IDF soldiers for abuse of Palestinians or Lebanese) is considering criminal charges against its own officers for ordering cluster bombs dropped on civilians. Am I the only one who finds this passing strange? Shouldn’t it be a mark of shame if Bush lets Israel off scot free, while Israel’s military punishes the culprits?? Oh that’s right, Bush has long lost the ability (if he ever had it) to feel any shame.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.