Israel’s Indiscriminate Use of Indiscriminate Weapons

On May 9, Israel announced to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York that it would release a set of maps showing where cluster munitions had been dropped by the Israeli Defense Forces during the IDF military incursions into South Lebanon in July-August of 2006.

There has been some speculation in Washington about the timing of the release, coming as it did two days prior to the arrival in the U.S. of Israel’s new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his first official visit, and first "face to face" with President Obama.

The near three-year delay in release of the maps has been costly. The United Nations Mine Action Coordination Center of South Lebanon (MACC-SL), which is primarily responsible for defusing and removal of the cluster bomblets, estimates that approximately ½ to one million of these remain unexploded in South Lebanon, and that 30 people have been killed and some 203 have been injured since the termination of hostilities in August, 2006.

The MACC-SL figures for total cluster munitions used by the Israeli Defense Forces correspond closely with information given by the Israeli Defense Forces to Haaretz reporter Meron Rapoport and published in an op-ed on September 13, 2006. For this piece, Rapoport interviewed numerous soldiers and officers to the level of battalion commander.

He was told that cluster munitions were delivered primarily by IDF MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) units, but also by bombs dropped from aircraft and shot in shells fired by 155mm artillery. Some of the other artillery shells used were phosphorous rounds. The MLRS units alone fired 1,800 cluster rockets containing over 1.2 million cluster bomblets, the vast majority of which, according to the IDF officers and soldiers he interviewed were fired into villages in South Lebanon, near the Israeli border, in the last 10 days of the operation.

Cluster munitions, however delivered, are by definition "indiscriminate" weapons prohibited by Article 50 of the 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Conventions. In the summer of 2006, these indiscriminate weapons were used indiscriminately and often against Lebanese villages which were "civilian objects" as defined by Article 52 of the Protocols.   

Perhaps the most accessible and comprehensive history to date of the military operations conducted by Israel in the summer of  2006, is "Eyewitness Lebanon: An International Law Inquiry," published by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in 2007. As the title indicates, this study focuses directly upon those aspects of the operations which constituted violations of international law, and upon those individuals with general and local command authority who committed the violations, and are named in the study.

The vast majority of the cluster munitions used by Israel in  July-August 2006 military operation in South Lebanon were provided under U.S.-Israel military assistance grants which are governed by the 1952 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement (TIAS 2675) between the two countries, which includes this section:

"The Government of Israel assures the United States Government that such equipment, materials, or services as may be required from the United States… are required for and will be used solely to maintain its internal security, its legitimate self-defense, or to permit it to participate in the defense of the area of which it is a part, or in United Nations collective security arrangements and measures, and that it will not undertake any act of aggression against any other state."

The sanctions which are the muscle in all such U.S. military assistance agreements with  countries involved in concessionary sales, are contained in the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). As detailed in a 2005 report to Congress by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), there had been three possible violations of the AECA by Israel prior to the 2006 invasion of South Lebanon:

  1. In April of 1978 and August of 1979, the Carter Administration formally notified Congress that Israel "may have violated" its military assistance agreement with the U.S. during military raids into South Lebanon. No action was taken, however, to suspend arms sales or credits to Israel;
  2. In June of 1981, the Reagan Administration informed Congress that U.S. aircraft sold on a concessionary basis had been used to attack a nuclear reactor in Iraq. In this instance, shipments of  F-15 and F-16 aircraft were suspended, but only for two months;

There were two other instances: the 1976 air rescue mission at Entebbe, Uganda, and the 1985 bombing of PLO Headquarters in Tunis where the Ford and Reagan Administrations, respectively, simply reported that U.S.-provided aircraft to Israel had been used, but no violation of relevant military assistances were deemed to have occurred.

Given this history of U.S. presidential and congressional attentiveness to Israel’s implementation of military assistance agreements in the past, those Israelis in the government and military involved in the gross misuse of American weapons in South Lebanon by the IDF in the summer of 2006, and the Bush Administration which looked the other way, did more than break the U.S.-Israel military assistance agreement; to paraphrase Mark Twain, they threw it down upon the ground and danced upon it.

Ironically, the reaction to the crimes in South Lebanon was far more rigorous in Israel. Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered an internal IDF inquiry into the use of cluster munitions (particularly) in the last weeks of the operation, and the Knesset launched an investigation of its own. As testimony was taken, responsibility began to climb up the chain of command, and within days of the beginning of the investigation, it became clear that heavy MLRS and artillery strikes had, according to Haaretz (again, Meron Rapoport) dumped between 1.2 million (IDF figures) and 3 million (UN estimates) cluster bomblets on the densely populated areas in South Lebanon, near the Israeli border.

It got worse. Phosphorous shells had been used. United Nations demining staff who moved into South Lebanon to begin the clean-up discovered  that the vast majority of cluster bombs used by the IDF had been taken from older stocks of US weapons (again, concessionary sales) and not from plentiful IDF supplies of newer, Israeli-made weapons.

The difference was that the high dud-rates of the former made the work of demining far more dangerous for both Lebanese and UN troops — and insured that the Lebanese farmers and their children would be maimed and killed for many years to come.

And then the questions began to be asked about the Geneva Conventions. Article 50 of the 1977 protocols specifically prohibit "indiscriminate attacks" which are not directed at a specific military objective, and may be expected to cause incidental loss of or injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. Sooner or later, senior Israeli military and civilian leaders will be called to account in the Hague.

Author: Stephen Green

Stephen Green writes for Inter Press Service.