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Israel's Lebanon war showcased cluster bomb horrors

Tire, Lebanon (Reuters) - Israel inadvertently galvanized an international campaign to ban cluster munitions by hastily raining bomblets over south Lebanon before a U.N.-agreed halt to its 2006 war with Hezbollah fighters could take effect.

Richard Whitehead, a British disability activist who was born legless, visits disabled children in the town of Nabatiyeh, south Lebanon, November 27, 2008. REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho

“It was the massive use of cluster munitions in the last 72 hours of that conflict that outraged the world,” Mary Wareham of the New York-based Human Rights Watch group told Reuters.

Norway initiated negotiations on a treaty outlawing cluster munitions which about 100 nations -- but not Israel, the United States, Russia or China -- are due to sign in Oslo next week.

The Beirut government pushed hard for the treaty and Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh says he will be in Norway to sign it.

Cluster bombs are still killing and maiming people in south Lebanon, a hilly region of towns and farming villages where nearly all the land is used for crops or grazing.

Rasha Zayoun was at home sorting through a bag of thyme gathered by her father last year when her hand snagged on the ribbon of a cluster bomblet. The blast blew off her left leg.

“There was a power cut, I didn’t see it was a cluster bomb,” said the shy 18-year-old in a headscarf, sitting at a sewing machine in a school for disabled people in Sarafand, near Tire.

With a prosthetic limb under her jeans, she has learned to walk again and hopes one day to open a tailor’s shop.

Zayoun is among more than 270 people wounded by cluster munitions in Lebanon since the war. About 40 have been killed.

Lamis Zein, site supervisor for an all-woman battle area clearance team in the south, recalled how villagers returned after the conflict to find their homes infested with bomblets.

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“They were in backyards, on rooftops, in the fields,” said the feisty mother of two, who trained in January to join clearance efforts run by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA).

“People couldn’t enter their houses or even pick their fruit and vegetables. They had to keep children inside.”

Zein, who will go to Oslo to encourage more nations to sign the treaty, said her biggest reward was to see children playing in their gardens after her team had cleared them of bomblets.

Israel, which attacked Lebanon after Hezbollah seized two of its soldiers in a cross-border raid, says it uses cluster bombs in line with international law, which doesn’t bar them outright.

Human Rights Watch, which has reported that Hezbollah also used some rockets with cluster components indiscriminately, says Israel violated prohibitions on targeting civilian areas when it sprayed the munitions from planes, rockets and artillery.

“If you know there are civilians in the area, you don’t deploy cluster bombs,” Wareham said. “Many fail to detonate on impact. They become de facto anti-personnel landmines posing clearance risks and risks to civilians for years to come.”

More than two years on, clearance teams have cleared 48 million square meters of cluster bombs and other unexploded weaponry in the south, according to Dalya Farran, spokeswoman for the U.N Mine Action Coordination Center in Lebanon.

Large areas still need to be cleared beneath the surface. Some lower-priority places have yet to be searched properly.

“Every inch of the suspected hazardous area has to be checked,” said Knut Furunes, a Norwegian ex-soldier who manages NPA’s mine action program. “It’s a massive task.”

Lebanon and the United Nations say Israel’s refusal to disclose targeting data on cluster strikes complicates the task of finding bomblets in the south’s rugged hills and valleys.

“The sub-munitions are delivered in great numbers -- fired by rocket they come 640 at a time,” Furunes said. “We just have to look and keep looking until we don’t find any more.”


Children are particularly at risk from the bomblets, many of which have white ribbons as part of their detonation mechanism. “Kids play with everything and they tend to have more severe (blast) injuries,” said Furunes, displaying various types of bomblets, along with a bird’s nest made mostly with the ribbons.

Campaigners for the treaty, adopted by 107 states in Dublin in May, say they are mostly delighted by its terms, requiring signatories to renounce the use, production, stockpiling and trade in cluster munitions. It also requires states to assist victims and family members and communities affected.

Some countries had argued for cluster munitions with self-destruct mechanisms to be exempted, but the agreed text of the convention exempts only a much narrower category.

“The Lebanon conflict provided us with some of our strongest evidence to go into the treaty discussions and say we don’t want an exemption for cluster bombs that ‘self-destruct’, because in our experience, they don’t, they fail,” HRW’s Wareham said.

At least 10 percent of sub-munitions dropped by Israel failed to explode, according to an NPA study. But the study included only cluster bombs that released their load perfectly. The actual failure rate was closer to 40 percent, Furunes said.

Wareham predicted that the Oslo convention would stigmatize cluster munitions and deter even non-signatory countries. “It would be very damaging for Israel if it used them again.”

Mirna Ashour, 21, a woman cluster bomb searcher who will also go to Oslo, said she had a simple message for Israel, its main ally the United States, and other users of the weapons.

“I would tell them it’s enough, stop war. Let us live in peace and safety. We are tired of war.”

Editing by Dominic Evans