(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Leftover Israeli cluster bombs kill civilians

Cluster bombs, like these outside Nabatiyeh, continue to kill civilians, Lebanon, 18 August 2006. The July 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict killed more than 1,500 people and displaced about 900,000 Lebanese and 300,000 Israelis.
Hugh Macleod/IRIN

On the morning of the ceasefire between Lebanese Hezbollah militias and the Israeli military, 11 year-old Hadi Hatab stepped out to play in the street for the first time in more than a month.

Seconds later a cluster bomb exploded. Hearing the blast, Hadi’s father, Moussa Hatab, 32, ran to help his son, detonating another bomb that killed him 72 hours later, according to Dr Ali Haj Ali of the Najde Hospital in Nabatiyeh. Several other members of the family were wounded by the bombs.

On 14 August, the Lebanese army began the painstaking task of clearing the thousands of unexploded cluster bombs that litter the fields, gardens, doorsteps and playgrounds of Nabatiyeh and its surrounding villages.

Some 150 cluster bombs were detonated on Friday on the tarmac behind Najde hospital, said Dr Ali. A Lebanese soldier said he had detonated 1,000 such devices already.

“I have never seen anything like it before. It is far more widespread than in Iraq,” said Sean Sutton, spokesman for the Nabatiyeh office of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a UK-based NGO.

Sutton said the group was struggling to cope with the quantities of cluster bombs lying around Nabatiyeh. “We’ve got a team working around the area clearing at the moment but there is such huge contamination that teams are just clearing inside houses and pathways. Fields and gardens are a second priority.”

The leftover bombs are hampering the delivery of relief food. “The threat is enormous,” said Matt Hollingworth of the United Nation’s World Food Programme. “We have to take MAG people with us for on-the-spot assessments before our convoys can travel some roads.”

In the 40 villages the de-mining group had visited around Nabatiyeh, half had been “severely contaminated” with cluster bombs, according to Sutton, who said he saw both M42 and M77 cluster bombs, which are either US-made or Israeli copies.

These cluster bombs, or submunitions, are small metallic canisters, about the size of a torch battery. Typically, tens to hundreds of these bomblets are ejected from artillery shells in mid-flight, showering a wide area with explosions that kill anyone within 10 metres of where they land. Up to a quarter, however, fail to explode.

In Yohmor, 7km from the Israeli border, locals say nearly three-quarters of the people from the area have been unable to return to their homes, because there is no safe path through the explosives.

“Israel is the one who dropped them here and America is the one who supplied them. They both know that is wrong,” said Hussein Khatib, the uncle of the 11-year-old boy who died in Habbouch, a village 4km north of Nabatiyeh.

Despite a decades-long campaign by human rights groups to ban cluster bombs altogether, they are permitted under international law as long as they are not used in urban areas.

An Israeli military spokesman insisted on 17 August that Israel used these munitions “within the confines of international humanitarian law”, but Human Rights Watch says the “use of cluster munitions in or near civilian areas violates the ban on indiscriminate attacks, because these weapons cannot be directed at only military targets”.

HM/AR/MW/CB

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