September 30, 2008 / 10:55 AM / 10 years ago

Israel switches from U.S. cluster bombs, buys local

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel has cut purchases of U.S.-made cluster bombs, defense officials said Tuesday, stocking up on supplies from a state-owned Israeli company rather than heeding calls for an outright ban.

An unexploded bomblet from cluster bombs dropped by Israeli forces during the conflict with Hezbollah lies on a road near the village of Maraka in southern Lebanon September 5, 2006. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Israel’s armed forces want to avoid a repeat of civilian casualties from cluster bombs during and after the 2006 Lebanon war, the officials said. More than 100 countries have banned the bombs because they can kill indiscriminately.

Cluster bombs have a relatively high failure rate compared to more conventional explosive munitions, but are favored by armies as a way of hitting enemy combatants in areas where no precise targets can be located.

The Israeli air force and artillery showered south Lebanon with cluster shells, each containing dozens or hundreds of grenade-size bomblets, during the 34-day war against Hezbollah guerrillas two years ago.

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the bombs failed to explode on impact, according to the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Center (UNMACC). Many of these were later detonated by accident, killing 20 civilians and wounding 195, it said.

Israeli defense officials disputed the UNMACC’s findings, putting the “dud rate” at less than 15 percent.

“But we recognize that this was a problem, caused by the fact that in the first week and half of the war we were relying, pretty much exclusively, on an arsenal of American ordnance that was likely to produce duds, either because of design faults or the fact it had been on the shelf so long,” one official said.

“We were cognizant of the civilian costs of the war in Lebanon and the lessons learned from the cluster-bomb issue received especially close attention.”

While no army wants to fire dud bombs in conflict, failed devices that later maim and kill civilians have created diplomatic pressures that Israel wants to limit.

The officials said Israel has since begun switching to the M85 cluster bomb made by Israel Military Industries’ (IMI), which says its the weapon includes a self-destruct fuse designed to blow up unexploded ordnance.

IMI claims a less than 1 percent dud-rate. A 2007 report on the M85 by Norwegian People’s Aid, one of several groups campaigning for a ban on cluster munitions, rated it at more like 10 percent.

Critics say cluster bomb reliability can be impaired by tough terrain or by bomb container shells that fail to open properly — factors not always simulated in laboratory tests.

The Norwegian study confirmed that American cluster munitions used by Israel in Lebanon were less reliable.

“By far the most widely used bomblets were the older U.S.-produced.. These bomblets are known to be unreliable and, not surprisingly, a high proportion failed to function and were left unexploded across large areas of land,” it said.

The United States, along with Israel and other major military powers such as China and Russia, has declined to join a global drive to ban the cluster bomb.

But the Pentagon said in July that it would require better safety standards in U.S.-made cluster munitions.

Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Luke Baker in London; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Keith Weir

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