An unexploded cluster bomb lies in a field near a private house in Majd es-Slim, southern Lebanon. It’s about the size of a D-cell battery.
(c) 2006 Chris Allbritton, all rights reserved.
MAJD ES-SLIM, Southern Lebanon — Ali Herz didn’t think he had anything to worry about when he went to check on his neighbor’s house in the southern town of Majd es-Slim. After all, the cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel was two days old and it seemed to be holding.
But as he pushed open the heavy black iron gate to enter the garden that morning, something happened. A sharp explosion threw him backward as shrapnel peppered his legs, face and chest. Conscious but in pain, he started to cry out for help to anyone in the area.
“I thought that my legs might have been cut off and I felt something had been knocked out of my mouth,” he said almost a month later as he sat in his parents’ home. He suffered a wound to his head and he couldn’t open his eyes, “because of the blood.”
Herz, 26, a mechanic, had stumbled across what may be the biggest danger facing residents of southern Lebanon now that the war is over: unexploded cluster bombs. According to the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre Southern Lebanon (MACCSL), there are up to 1 million of the tiny but deadly unexploded munitions littering the south, many of them American made. Herz was one of the lucky ones. As of Sept. 21, in addition to Herz, 89 people have been wounded, and 14 killed, according to center spokeswoman Dalya Farran in Tyre, the headquarters for the center.
Cluster bombs work by launching a container of sub-munitions or “bomblets” against a target. When the container-which can be delivered either via airplane, artillery or rocket-bursts open in air, dozens or hundreds of smaller sub-munitions are scattered over a wide area. A ribbon attached to the arming pin deploys, both stabilizing the bomblet and arming it. When it strikes the ground, the trigger slams into the detonator like a firing pin on a pistol, causing the bomblet to explode. In some cases, a shaped charge in the bottom, like a miniature version of what is found in the IEDs in Iraq, increases the lethality of the bomblet.
Most of the cluster bomblets identified so far have been American made, Farran said. The munitions include American m42s, m77s, m85s and Chinese-made MZD-2s. Some of the m85 munitions are Israeli copies of American designs, she added, but she wasn’t sure of the numbers.
A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces said, when asked to comment on Israeli use of cluster bombs, “All the weapons and munitions used by the IDF are legal under international law and their use conforms with international standards.”
He declined to comment further.
Although there is no international ban on cluster weapons in general, the United States has strict rules about the use of its cluster munitions against civilian targets as laid out by the Arms Export Control Act. Additionally, the U.S. and Israel reportedly have secret agreements about their use, according to a report in the New York Times. The State Department has opened an investigation into whether the use of cluster bombs by the Israelis violates either the AECA or the secret agreements.
“What we’re doing is seeking more information regarding alleged improper use of cluster munitions by the Israelis,” said Nancy Beck, a department spokeswoman. “Based on the information that we gather we will take appropriate measures, if required by the Arms Export Control Act.”
The IDF spokesman also declined to comment about the State Department investigation.
While the investigation is ongoing, a shipment of M-26 artillery rockets-cluster weapons-has been held up, according to the New York Times.
Since 1976, Israel has been the single biggest recipient of American foreign aid, according to the World Policy Institute in New York. From 2001-2005, Israel received $10.5 billion in Foreign Military Financing- congressionally appropriated grants given to foreign governments to finance the purchase of American-made weapons, services and training-and $6.3 billion worth of direct U.S. arms sales.
“Being able to purchase arms from the United States, at least under U.S. law, is not a right,” said another State Department official who requested anonymity in order to discuss the investigation. “If we find that that these weapons are not used for the appropriate purposes, the U.S. may decide not to sell or provide weapons in the future.”
In 1982, Congress cut off the sale of cluster bombs to Israel, following an inquiry that showed they had been improperly used against civilian targets in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon that year. President Reagan lifted the ban six years later.
It was these mines and unexploded munitions left over from the Israeli invasions of 1978 and 1982, as well as those planted by various warring factions in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, that MACCSL was formed to deal with. “But after the war, we discovered we had a huge problem with cluster bombs,” said the U.N.’s Farran.
Despite the IDF’s official statement, there are signs that some within the Israeli military establishment have had second thoughts about the use of the weapons. In an article in Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading left-leaning daily newspaper, an unnamed commander in the IDF’s MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) unit expressed regret at the use of the cluster bombs.
“In Lebanon, we covered entire villages with cluster bombs,” the commander is quoted as saying. “What we did there was crazy and monstrous.”
In the closing days of the war, he said, his unit launched up to 1,800 cluster rockets into southern Lebanon containing up to 1.2 million bomblets. The U.N. also estimates that another 32,000 artillery shells with cluster munitions were fired, adding more unexploded bomblets to the area. An unknown number of cluster bombs were dropped from the air. Farran saiid more than 1 million unexploded bomblets could still be on the ground.
And that’s one of the main problems. No one is really sure just how many strikes there were — “Each day the new targets are adding up,” said Farran.
As of Sept. 26, survey and emergency ordnance disposal teams had found 590 confirmed cluster bomb strikes, she said. A single strike could be one attack on a house or a village or area.
The official failure rate of the bomblets is 10 percent, said Farran, which means that 1 in 10 bomblets will fail to explode on impact but remain armed. However, she said the survey and emergency ordnance disposal teams had found that almost 40 percent of the recovered bomblets had failed. Taking the numbers from the IDF, that means there are still up to 480,000 unexploded bomblets from the IDF’s rockets, she said. And that doesn’t include cluster bombs dropped from airplanes or fired from artillery.
Those on the ground doing the dangerous job of clearing the bomblets agree.
“I’ve never seen so much like this,” said Magnus Bengtsson, the supervisor on an EOD team clearing cluster bomblets from a neighborhood in the small town of Hanaouay, 5.5 miles southeast of Tyre and eight miles from the Israeli border. “It’s more than I expected.”
Bengtsson and his team are with the Swedish Rescue Services Agency, a group the UN contracted for mine clearing but which has been pressed into service to help with the immediate danger. As he walked through an empty field the size of a soccer pitch, Bengtsson pointed to a small, D cell-battery sized object on the ground. It’s an American-made m77, he said, which is designed to take out both people and armored vehicles, including tanks. The shaped charge can penetrate up to 5 inches of armor, and the casing is scored so it sends out deadly shrapnel to a radius of about 20 feet.
Bengtsson and other groups tasked by the MACCSL with collecting and disposing of the unexploded munitions are concentrating on the roads and homes in the affected villages right now. After that, they will start a phase known as battle area clearance (BAC) that will attempt to clear all the bomblets from the agricultural fields throughout the entire south. It’s a job the UN hopes will be completed by the end of 2007.
There is no blanket ban on cluster munitions, but the Geneva Conventions forbid their use against civilian targets. When asked if he had seen any evidence that Hezbollah had been firing Katyusha rockets from Hanaouay and drawing Israeli fire, Bengtsson, who served in the Swedish army in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq as a demolitions expert, shook his head no.
Residents of the south are grateful to the UN and its EOD teams, but they worry that a delay in getting to all the bomblets will lead to the loss of tobacco and olive harvests, the mainstay crops of the south.
“We hope they can clear the fields because we rely on them,” said Ali’s mother, Mariam Herz. “We lost the season for the tobacco … and we had a few cows that were killed.”
Today, Ali Herz walks slowly with a limp, and when he shows his legs and chest, the shrapnel wounds are so numerous he looks like he suffers from chicken pox. He still has two pieces of shrapnel in his left thigh, he said, and he has to put cushions between his knees in order to sleep. He cannot work because he has to get under cars, something his injuries prevent him from doing.
Still, he worries about others and the remaining bombs. “After I hear an explosion,” he said, “I want to go and see if anyone’s been hurt because I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through.”
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