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Deminers find new cluster bomb sites without Israeli data

Deminers from MAG scour farmland in the village of Zawtar West in south Lebanon for Israeli-dropped cluster bombs. The UN says an average of 10 newly infected sites turn up every month.
(Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

Deminers clearing Israeli-dropped cluster bombs in south Lebanon are turning up an average of 10 new sites per month, while Israel continues to ignore requests for data that would assist clearing the estimated one million unexploded bomblets, which continue to kill and maim civilians and decimate rural livelihoods. A single cluster bomb can disperse hundreds of bomblets.

[Read this report in Arabic]

“All these weapons systems are computerised and grid references are entered before the bombs drop. Not receiving the cluster bomb strike data from the Israelis remains our biggest obstacle to clearance,” Dalya Farran, a spokeswoman for the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre for South Lebanon (MACSL), told IRIN.

The UN estimates that Israel rained down around four million bomblets - most US-supplied - onto south Lebanon in the last three days of its 2006 July war with Hezbollah fighters, when a ceasefire had already been agreed.

 Fields of Fire: Cluster bombs in Lebanon

  [Arabic] [English]  

In a 24 December report last year the Israeli military cleared itself of accusations that it had violated international law in its use of cluster bombs to fight Hezbollah. In a statement, the army said its chief investigator, Maj-Gen Gershon HaCohen, said: "It was clear that the majority of the cluster munitions were fired at open and uninhabited areas, areas from which Hezbollah forces operated and in which no civilians were present."

Around one million of the bomblets failed to explode on impact, leaving roads, schools, homes and fields littered with lethal explosives that detonate when touched, making them a danger similar to anti-personnel mines.

High failure rates

Cluster bombs, or sub-munitions, are legal, and manufacturers say their failure rates should be between 10-15 percent. The UN estimates in general the weapons fail between 20-30 percent of the time. In south Lebanon MACSL estimates between 30-40 percent of the bombs dropped failed to explode, rising up to 80 percent in some places. 

The high failure rate may partly be explained by Israel’s use of Vietnam-war era munitions, such as the M42, M77 and Blue 63, all US or Israeli-made and the MZD2, made in China, many of which MACSL said had gone beyond their expiry date by the time they were dropped on Lebanon.

The Israelis also dropped the new M85 cluster bomb that is designed to self destruct if it fails to explode on impact and which manufacturers say has a 1 percent failure rate. MACSL’s Dalya Farran said they estimate the bomb, used for the first time on battlefields in Lebanon, had a 10 percent failure rate.

“By their nature, cluster bombs are very likely to fail,” said Farran. “They are not accurate and not reliable. When they fail they become more or less like land mines, and actually worse as they are spread over a very large area.” - hm/ar/cb

More strike sites

Initial estimates by MACSL that most of the unexploded munitions would be cleared by the end of last year have been revised to the end of this year.

Since the end of the war, over 30 Lebanese have been killed and over 200 injured, many permanently disabled from the loss of a limb after accidentally triggering an unexploded bomblet. The state provides no direct support for cluster bomb victims.

At the end of October 2006, two months after the end of the war, MACSL recorded 796 individual locations as infected with unexploded ordnance, totalling 32 million square metres of land.

By late last month that figure had risen to 961 strike locations, totalling 38 million square metres. According to MACSL, 137,000 bomblets have so far been safely destroyed, mainly in high priority areas, such as roads, homes and schools.

Farmers risk all

Tens of thousands of the bomblets still lie on farmland, however, making agriculture - the mainstay of the economy in south Lebanon on which 16,000 families depend - a dangerous and increasingly unprofitable pursuit.


In a 6 September 2007 report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the US government to conduct an investigation into what it called “Israel’s use of US-supplied arms, ammunition, and other material in violation of international humanitarian law.”

An initial report by the US State Department last January found the US-made weapons were misused in civilian areas. Israel justified its use of cluster bombs during the war by arguing that all civilians left in south Lebanon were “terrorists related to Hezbollah”.

HRW’s report accused the Israeli military of war crimes: “To the extent such attacks were conducted with knowledge or reckless indifference to the civilian nature of those being attacked, then those who ordered these attacks would have the criminal intent needed for the commission of war crimes as defined by international humanitarian law.”

In the Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts (Protocol I), of 8 June 1977.

Part IV, Chapter II; Article 51; Point 2 says:

"The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited."

In a statement issued on 24 December, the
Israeli military cleared itself of illegal use of cluster bombs saying it had used them to target Hezbollah rocket launching sites.

In 1982 the US Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on sales of cluster bombs to Israel after a Congressional investigation found that Israel had used the weapons in civilian areas during its invasion of Lebanon that year.

A coalition of over 138 nations met in Geneva in December to discuss a draft treaty banning cluster bombs, which have been widely used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Chechnya. But major weapons producing states including the USA, Russia, Israel and China have opposed the ban, saying they need to keep the option of using the weapons for self-defence.

As of 7 December 2007 there were 94 states that have explicitly endorsed the Oslo Declaration calling for a ban on the use of cluster bombs. The coalition is due to meet in Wellington in New Zealand in February. - hm/ar/cb

A December 2006 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) initially found around one quarter of all farmland had been infected, though the UN now estimates the figure is higher, and that nearly US$100 million in crops had been lost, along with 20,000 livestock.

At the Zawtar West site, 12km southwest of provincial capital Nabatiyeh, Lebanese deminers from Mine Action Group (MAG) painstakingly work their way through 70,000 square metres of farmland, cutting back precious olive trees in their search for bomblets.

Head of operations at Zawtar West Ghassan Suleiman said many farmers continue to plough their fields even knowing the land is littered with unexploded ordnance.

“Several farmers could not wait to plant their tobacco and vegetables and so took the risk and ploughed,” Suleiman told IRIN. “Many farmers and shepherds have been injured while sheep and many goats have been killed in the past two months, which represents a big loss for farmers.”

Tobacco crops have been hit particularly hard, with official figures reporting a 20 percent drop in the last harvest. Local farmers say their land has been so badly poisoned by the scorching of explosions that where 20kg of tobacco plant would have grown, today yields on the same soil are just one kilogramme.

Many farmers have been forced to abandon their land and lease non-infected land, adding a further heavy cost and reducing profits for some to less than US$1,000 for the year.

“Worst use”

Zawtar West reveals the extent of the Israeli cluster bomb bombardment, which locals say occurred on 13 and 14 August, the last two days of the war. In this single, small valley MAG deminers have turned up 15 separate strike sites, with each strike site representing up to 650 bomblets.

MACSL’s Farran compared the use of cluster bombs in south Lebanon with their use in Kosovo, an area comparable in size, in which NATO war planes dropped cluster bombs as part of a four-month bombing campaign in 1999 to drive out Serbian troops.

“In a two and a half year programme, UNMAS [Mine Action Service] cleared 25,000 sub-munitions [in Kosovo] and that was 90 percent of the problem,” she said.

“In Lebanon, in a year and a half, we have cleared 137,000 bomblets, plus what have been cleared by the locals [representing just under 14 percent of the problem]. This was unprecedented and one of the worst, if not the worst, use of sub-munitions in history.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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