Beirut — Cluster bombs and shells were used by the Israeli Army across the entire southern sector of west Beirut - including the heavily populated Borj el Barajneh refugee camp.
Munitions experts here say that, based on the large quantities of other types of Israeli bombs and shells being discovered, US-supplied cluster bombs apparently did not play a leading role in the Israeli assault.
But these munitions experts with the multinational peacekeeping force, which has been clearing the Lebanese capital of unexploded bombs, rockets, shells, and mines, confirm that five types of cluster bombs have been found in west Beirut.
The French, Italian, and American munitions specialists have found more than 1,800 cluster ''bomblets'' still unexploded, mostly in the area between the Corniche Mazra and Beirut International Airport. This area, which bore the brunt of Israeli shelling and bombing day after day, had the heaviest concentration of Palestinians - both fighters and civilians. It also included the heaviest concentration of Palestinian military positions.
The United States suspended all shipments of cluster-type weapons to Israel last July following reports of their possible misuse by the Israelis in Lebanon. American Embassy personnel in Beirut prepared a report confirming that cluster bombs had been used by the Israelis. But the report was prepared at a time when embassy staff members were restricted from entering west Beirut because of ongoing fighting. There has yet been no official follow-up investigation here.
The Reagan administration had expressed concern that Israeli use of cluster bombs and shells might have violated US arms export law and US-Israeli defense agreements, including that the weapons be used for defense only and only against military targets of organized Arab armies.
An Israeli spokesman in Baabda said cluster bombs and shells were used in Lebanon primarily against Syrian troop concentrations in the Bekaa Valley. He said it ''could be that some such bombs were dropped on the city (Beirut).'' He added that ''a few'' cluster bombs might have been dropped in Beirut by jet fighter-bombers returning to Israel after bombing missions in the Bekaa.
But the munitions experts say that most of the cluster weapons being found were fired by artillery rather than dropped from planes.
The cluster bomb is a US-designed weapon intended to deliver many small explosions over a wide radius, rather than one big one over a smaller radius. Cluster bombs or shells are simply many little bombs or ''bomblets'' carried and then dispersed out of one container - either an artillery-fired shell containing 88 bomblets or a canister with 360 bomblets dropped by a jet fighter-bomber. They have been designed in different sizes, models, and with different triggering mechanisms. Some explode on impact, some are time-delayed, and some explode only when touched.
The munitions experts here have found and identified five types of cluster bomblets:
1. A black metal ball, about the size of a baseball, filled with an explosive charge. It is believed to be the same type of cluster bomb used by Israel in its 1978 operation in southern Lebanon.
2. A shiny metal cylinder about an inch and a half in diameter and with a metal stem about six inches long. It is the largest and most powerful of the bomblets and as such is designed for use against lightly armored vehicles and against bunkers.
3. A shiny cylinder, a little larger than a flashlight battery, with a thin cloth strip several inches long attached to the top. The cloth strip is said to operate as a propeller in dispersing the bomblets. It is designed to cause a single blast in a concentration of troops.
4. A cylinder that looks identical to version No. 3 except it is colored black. It is designed to deliver both blast and shrapnel in a concentration of troops.
5. A black metal triangle, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, with metal wings that pop out after the bomblet is freed from the shell casing. It is designed upon hitting the ground to trigger a small explosion that releases a black metal ball - smaller than a golf ball - a little more than a yard off the ground where it explodes, maximizing the impact of the explosion in a concentration of troops. Experts say that if one of the wings malfunctions and the bomblet does not fall on the point of the triangle, it does not explode until it is triggered.
It was this type of bomblet that killed a US marine in Beirut in early October.
''If the cluster bombs were used, they were used only against military positions,'' an Israeli spokesman said. He added they were not used against single artillery or anti-aircraft gun emplacements in Beirut.
He said that cluster bombs were not used extensively in Beirut because the buildings would impede the spreading out of the bomblets and thus reduce their effectiveness. He noted that such weapons were most effective in relatively open areas where troops were massed in one place.
But munitions experts say they are finding unexploded cluster bomblets in all districts of the southern portion of west Beirut, including on the roofs of the tall apartment buildings of the Fakhani district. They say that in the populated areas residents have long since scoured the streets for the bomblets, crudely disarming them by hitting them with long sticks. As a result, they say, they are finding more bomblets in the less populated areas where people have not gone since the fighting.''
We have found them (cluster bomblets) in all the areas we've been in - whether there were people or runways or whatever,'' says Chief Warrant Officer Ralph Way, who is in charge of ordnance disposal for the US Marines. Marine units have cleared unexploded ordnance in an area including the airport, a portion of the crowded Ouzai neighborhood, and the southern portion of Borj el Barajneh.
''I can't say where they (the Israelis) concentrated their fire other than the fact that they were firing throughout the area,'' he said, referring to the quantities of all kinds of scattered munitions found in the marines' patrol sector.
Fighters with the Palestine Liberation Organization frequently set up anti-aircraft positions, artillery, or other military positions close to and in heavily populated neighborhoods, often drawing the fire of the Israelis close to their own families. As a former guerrilla said, ''Everyone was a fighter.''
However, these ''fighters'' often in fact were unarmed civilians trying to flee rather than participate in the fighting. Even a brief trip to the refugee camps or to local hospitals shows the extent to which children, women, and the elderly were apparently caught between these PLO tactics and the Israeli Army's desire to crush the PLO with bombs and shells.
Munitions experts and soldiers in the multinational force contend that it is senseless to discuss the morality of using one type of shell vs. another. They point out that they all kill. But they note that cluster bombs pose a special problem when deployed in heavily populated areas. In addition to the potential for large initial casualties, the small and innocuous-looking bomblets, some of which usually are left unexploded after the initial explosions, seem to attract the curiosity of children.
This writer, as a result of visiting Borj el Barajneh camp and several hospitals, found two incidents in which an explosive device, apparently a cluster bomblet, was actually held before exploding.
In one case, 13-year-old Muhammad Snono of Borj el Barajneh found a black triangular object that he says he thought was a magnet. He says he found it next to the road near the camp and that he picked it up. He says he carried it with him for more than an hour. Then it suddenly exploded. Muhammad lost his left hand in the blast. His 14-year-old cousin, Amin Snono, who was with him, was slashed across the chest and stomach by shrapnel. He lifts his shirt and displays two long, thick scars. It happened two and a half months ago.
Recently five-year-old Fatima, also of Borj el Barajneh, found what she describes as ''a battery with a rope attached to it'' in the garden outside her house. She says she thought it was a toy. It was shiny, like silver, she says. She picked it up and carried it inside, where her mother was nursing her four-month-old brother on the bed. She threw her new toy down on the floor. The explosion killed her brother. Her mother lost her right leg. Fatima lost her left leg.
In addition to Fatima and Muhammad there are scores of others in the camps and neighborhoods here who have lost limbs or were injured in bomb blasts - including PLO fighters. Most never saw what type of bomb it was before the explosion. In most cases, because there are so many other types of bombs and explosives in the city, experts say it is impossible to know for sure if it was a cluster bomb. Thus, there are no reliable statistics or estimates on cluster bomb injuries.
The respected Arabic daily newspaper, an-Nahar, reported two weeks ago that a cluster bomb blast killed a 14-year-old boy near the airport.
An Israeli spokesman said the issue of the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon is ''dead.'' He added that in any event Israel manufactures its own cluster weapons. ''We do not rely on US supplies. If we need it, we manufacture it in Israel - of course, the original invention was from the US.'' An Israeli soldier in Lebanon commented, ''The whole question of the restrictions is a litle bit ridiculous. If you are selling weapons, you are selling them to be used.''