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What Lies Beneath
Published on Friday, September 8, 2006 by Haaretz / Israel
What Lies Beneath
by Meron Rapoport
 

S.is a reservist in an artillery battalion, and he is not at ease with what he did during the second Lebanon war. He fired shells, sometimes at a rate of one per minute. He and his fellow soldiers fired 200 shells one night and on other nights, "only" 50 or 80. S. doesn't know what damage was done by the shells he fired. He didn't see where they fell. He doesn't even know exactly where they were aimed. Artillery gunners like him only receive coordinates, numbers, not names of villages. Even those commanding the team or the battery don't know exactly what they're firing at.


An unexploded bomblet from a cluster bomb marked by the UN in a field near the village of El Maalliye in southern Lebanon. (AP)
"Tell me, how do the villages there look? Are they all destroyed?" S. asked me after I told him that I was in contact with UN personnel who were patrolling the villages. What really made something inside S. snap was when his battalion was given an entire village as a target one night. He thinks it was Taibeh, a village in what is called the eastern sector, but he's not sure. The battalion commander assembled the men and told them that the whole village had been divided into parts and that each team was supposed to "flood" its alloted space - without specific targets, simply to bombard the village.

"I told myself that the people left in that village must be the weaker ones, like in Haifa," says S. "I felt that we were acting like Hezbollah. Taking houses and turning them into targets. That's terror. My soul is important to me. When I hug my girlfriend, I want to feel good about myself. And I don't feel good about what I did in the war. I felt like I really should have tossed my weapon and run away."

According to the UN, S. has good reason not to feel at peace with himself. One reservist artillery officer estimated that the Israel Defense Forces fired about 160,000 shells during the recent war. By comparison, in the Yom Kippur War, the IDF fired less than 100,000 shells. Moreover, in addition to the tens of thousands of regular shells, Israel fired several hundred cluster rockets and cluster bombs. These kinds of munition break apart in the air as they approach the ground, and spray dozens or hundreds of bomblets, each about the size of a large battery, within a radius of up to 100 meters. Most of these bomblets explode when they reach the ground, but a significant portion do not, and effectively become something like land mines. UN personnel who have been patrolling in south Lebanon in recent days say that a good part of the villages and towns there have been turned into large mine fields.

As of this past Wednesday, UN mine-sweepers in southern Lebanon had identified 450 sites where cluster shells had fallen, and that's only in settled areas. In open areas, in fields, say the UN people, there are many more such sites. Each of these sites may contain hundreds or even thousands of small unexploded bombs. The UN estimates that about 100,000 of these little mines are now scattered about that part of Lebanon. Since the cease-fire, 12 Lebanese civilians, including two children, have been killed by the explosion of these "duds" and 78 people (22 of them children) have been wounded, some losing limbs in the process.

Bombs all over

In Tibnin, a town in the central part of southern Lebanon, a cluster bomb landed opposite the main entrance to the hospital. A member of the UN's mine-sweeping team told Human Rights Watch that in just 10 minutes, he had counted 100 unexploded bomblets; after that he just didn't bother.

David Shearer, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon, toured the Tibnin area on Wednesday. "I saw these kinds of bombs on houses, inside houses and next to houses," he says. "I saw them clear 16 or 17 away from a school soccer field. I saw them on the road and in orchards next to the road, caught in t0he trees." Since the cease-fire, he adds, nearly every day a death is reported, and three or four people are wounded, as a result of someone stepping on parts of a cluster bomb.

International law expert Dr. Yuval Shani of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem explains that there are international conventions that prohibit the use of chemical or biological weapons, of dumdum bullets and other types of weaponry, but that cluster bombs are not expressly prohibited. However, says Shani, Section 57 of the first protocol of the Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, prohibits the use of "indiscriminate" weapons, a definition that fits the cluster bombs.

"Cluster weapons cannot be used in a place where there are liable to be civilians," says Shani. The only justification for using such bombs in an area where there are civilians is in cases when they are the only type of arms by means of which the desired military result may be achieved. "It's hard to believe," he continues, "that in the hundreds of instances discovered in Lebanon, cluster bombs were the only possible weapon."

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), which filed a request this week for Attorney General Menahem Mazuz to investigate the matter, puts it more forcefully: "The dropping of cluster bombs in built-up areas, in complete disregard for the danger they pose to the lives of innocent civilians, seems to meet the basic mental requirement for committing a crime that involves deliberate killing or deliberate harming of civilians," says the petition, sent by attorney Sonia Boulos on behalf of the association.

S. did not fire cluster bombs, but he heard over the radio orders being given to use them. He also met a friend from another battalion who excitedly told him that he had fired such bombs. The friend's excitement is understandable given that these weapons are not customarily used in IDF operations and are a rarity even in training exercises. Says one reservist officer: "Cluster bombs are only used in training in one firing range in the south of Israel, and this area is treated as if it's a mine field."

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."

More duds

Another peculiarity involves the type of shells that were used. The 155-mm. artillery batteries use two types: American-made shells, known in the IDF by the acronym matzrash, and Israeli-made shells, called tze'if. Y. learned that with the Israeli cluster shells, the percentage of duds - i.e., of bombs that essentially became land mines - was lower than that of the American-made ones, and yet they fired only the latter kind. But the major portion of the damage wasn't done, apparently, by the 155-mm. guns that S. and Y. fired, rather, apparently, by the new MRLS rocket launchers that the IDF used in operations for the first time in the second Lebanon war.

In the late 1990s, the IDF purchased 48 of these launchers from the United States. Each one holds 12 rockets, which act essentially like large cluster bombs. According to the official specifications, each such rocket contains no fewer than 644 tiny bomblets that are supposed to disperse in a 100-meter radius above the target. "Like a soccer field full of bombs," is how one artillery reservist described it.

Y. says that his battalion commander said that when the IDF Apache helicopter came down near Ramot Naftali, killing its two pilots, one suspicion was that it had been hit by such a rocket that had been fired in the area at the time. It was later determined that this was likely not the cause, but the discussion of such a possibility basically amounted to an official admission that such rockets were indeed being used against southern Lebanon. How many exactly? It's hard to know. The UN people have no precise data on the breakdown of unexploded ordnance from MRLS rockets, or American or Israeli cluster shells.

Shearer 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."

Members of the UN mine-sweeping team estimate that the rate of unexploded ordnance from the cluster shells and rockets fired by Israel at Lebanon is very high, about 40 percent. This means that if each of these bombs that were fired at Lebanon left over 250 tiny bomblets around, then scores of them remain unexploded.

"In the Israeli shells there's supposed to be a mechanism that detonates the duds shortly after they reach the ground," said a UN official who toured Sidon and Tibnin this week. "But this mechanism didn't work. They're all over the place - near hospitals, schools, private homes."

Israel is not the only country that has used cluster bombs. Human Rights Watch claims that the United States and Great Britain made massive use of MRLS rockets during the second Gulf War, causing hundreds of casualties among the Iraqi civilian population. The organization estimates that about 30 million of these tiny bombs were dropped on Iraq. This may make the U.S. State Department's decision to launch an inquiry into Israel's use of such shells and rockets in the recent war seem somewhat hypocritical. The inquiry, whose existence was revealed about a week ago by The New York Times, is supposed to determine whether Israel reported to the Americans on its use of cluster bombs and on whether the targets hit were clearly defined in military terms, in keeping with a classified agreement signed when the United States began supplying Israel with cluster bombs in the early 1970s.

A similar investigation, following the first Lebanon War, led to a six-year ban on sales of cluster bombs to Israel. The New York Times reported that in the final days of the second Lebanon War, the American administration refused to transfer to Israel an emergency shipment of cluster rockets, apparently for this reason.

The UN mine-sweeping team currently working in Lebanon arrived there from Kosovo, where NATO forces used cluster bombs. But team members says that in Kosovo the situation was a lot simpler, and that the UN received from NATO precise maps of the targets at which the bombs were fired. The UN requested such maps from Israel, but the ones they received, says a senior source in the UN, "were very general. We need maps with coordinates and quantities, so we can locate the sites and know how many bombs we're supposed to find in each place. I don't think we'll get maps like that from Israel."

David Shearer says that the cluster bombs are the main obstacle to getting life in Lebanon back on track. "We'll finish fixing the water and electricity within two weeks," he explains. "But it will be 12 or even 15 months before we make southern Lebanon a safe area. Right now the residents are afraid to return to their homes. The farmers are afraid to return to the fields."

© Copyright 2006 Haaretz

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