Israeli shelling left carpet of bomblets
Deminers had already been through this house once, collecting unexploded Israeli cluster bombs from the roof, front porch, and path. But they had to move on to clear other houses of potentially deadly surprises – and so left for later bombs in Umm Mazen's garden and olive grove.Skip to next paragraph
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But her patience broke. Looking through her children's bedroom windows, Umm Mazen could still see cluster bombs in the dirt. Five weeks of war has carpeted south Lebanon with tens of thousands of small Israeli explosives.
"Finish today! I'm not waiting any longer!" wailed Umm Mazen at one deminer, as a team from the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) sealed off the next street to blow up several cluster bombs. Angry, frustrated, and finally collapsing into tears, she spluttered: "Buy my house! I want to leave here!"
Civilian casualties are growing from this 34-day war. By late Wednesday, Lebanese Army figures indicated eight deaths and 38 wounded from cluster bombs; the UN reported 249 cluster-bomb strike locations where dud rates have reached as high as 70 percent.
"This is the worst [cluster- bomb contamination] I have ever seen," says Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst with the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), who was chief of high-value targeting for the Pentagon during the Iraq invasion of 2003, and took part in several US military battle-damage assessments dating back to 1998.
"We're on the verge of a potential humanitarian crisis if the deminers can't get a handle on this," says Mr. Garlasco. American use of cluster bombs during the 2003 Iraq invasion was "very problematic, but it makes what happened here look like child's play."
"It's everywhere," says Magnus Rundstrom, a MAG demining team leader from Sweden, who that morning had found 75 cluster bombs in a single living room – including one nestled in a shoe inside a cupboard. He ticks off the types of submunitions his team is finding, then notes that they are "very similar. It's the same kind of death."
Israeli and Hizbullah guns have fallen silent since an Aug. 14 cease-fire. But the pain and fear is likely to continue for years, as people trying to rebuild sift through rubble strewn with the explosives. Besides tapping into its own cluster-bomb stores, Israel asked for speedy delivery from the US, just days before the cease-fire, of 1,300 M-26 rockets, each of which carry 644 cluster munitions – a total of more than 800,000 more cluster bomblets.
"They are not prohibited, [but] one of the basic principles of the Geneva Conventions is the distinction between civilian and military," says Nadim Houry, a lawyer and head of the HRW office in Beirut, whose teams are charting cluster-bomb use.
Even if the cluster bombs were fired at Hizbullah military targets, and villages were empty of civilians at the time of attack – as many were, in the final stage of the conflict – the problem is that "you know the villagers are going to come back," says Mr. Houry. "With the high dud rates that we've seen here, you've laid out a minefield in each village."
That analysis came as Amnesty International Wednesday accused Israel of war crimes, saying the magnitude and systematic nature of attacks, the scale of civilian casualties, and statements from Israeli officials "indicate that such destruction was deliberate and part of a military strategy, rather than 'collateral damage.' "
Coping with these minefields is the task of UN and MAG teams, as well as the Lebanese Army and even Hizbullah, which lost one member in this village while trying to clear the road of hundreds of cluster bombs the day after the cease-fire began.
The UN and MAG teams already in Lebanon, who have worked for years to dig up an estimated 400,000 mines left across the south after decades of war, are to nearly triple their strength in coming days as they shift to neutralizing cluster bombs.
Israel says it used cluster munitions legally, and did not target civilians. Experts on the ground have found that, while houses in some villages have been covered with bomblets, even more are concentrated in olive groves and other areas with tree cover that were likely used by Hizbullah as rocket launch sites.