Israeli shelling left carpet of bomblets

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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!"

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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.

The high ground from Yarmoh stretching toward the north, for example, puts the Israeli armored incursion route toward Marjayoun, in the lower fields just to the east, in the 3-mile range of Hizbullah's antitank rockets. It was hammered with clusters, analysts say, perhaps to suppress Hizbullah fire on the Israeli advance.

But while Israel was able to determine locations of rocket launches, the response – when using cluster bombs – was not to pinpoint, but to saturate much wider areas.

"If it was a site for Katyushas, in our opinion it would explain the heavy presence of submunitions," says Andrew Gleeson, program manager for MAG, speaking in Nabatieh. "I haven't seen any indiscriminate [Israeli] fire. What I have seen are noncombat casualties as a result of discriminate fire."

That means crucial decisions about priorities, when demining teams are flagged down in villages, as people beg to have cluster bombs rendered safe.

"We're concerned about accident hot spots; human life is the priority," says Mr. Gleeson. "As I brief my guys: 'Every one you miss is a life, and it could be your child.' "

But clean-up is slow and painstaking. Some cluster bombs that did not arm on impact can be picked up by hand and made safe for later demolition. Others must be blown up in situ, one or two at a time. Use was widespread, in large numbers, and dud rates – due to soft landing areas, and Vietnam-era munitions used that date back to 1973 – far exceeded published figures of 14 percent.

Residents of this village were mostly grateful for the deminers, though blasts echoed throughout the day. "People of this neighborhood, stay in your homes!" announces an Iraqi deminer over a megaphone. "There will shortly be a cluster bomb explosion."

Though MAG works under the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre for south Lebanon, it depends on outside funding for plans to nearly triple its team strength to handle an initial "emergency" phase of three months. After that, come many more months when deminers go back to houses like Umm Mazan's to clear gardens and back yards. Eventually tobacco and olive farms will be cleared.

But that is not fast enough for Umm Mazen. Warning tape is wrapped around the front of the house and turns the garden into a no-go area. Cluster bombs, with their telltale loop of white ribbon, are scattered everywhere. In her anger amid the ruins the issue turns political – and against the Hizbullah guerrillas who have claimed victory over Israel.

"I am not Hizbullah! This has nothing to do with me!" she shouts at anyone who will listen. She is jumpy, and worries that a cat will set off another cluster bomb near their house; one already died that way.

Then she insults Hizbullah – which has promised to pay for and repair the damage to homes across Lebanon – and its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. "Why did [Hizbullah] start this war? For 30 years we worked to pay for this house. This is not my war. If Hizbullah wants this war, they can pay for it!"

"We are getting more teams, because this is not enough," says UN MACC spokeswoman Dalya Farran, speaking in the southern port city of Tyre. Several more teams arrived this week; five more clearance teams are due next Monday. She says Hizbullah units have immobilized some cluster bombs with a hardening foam to make them heavy and less appealing to children.

But no foam was on the bomblet that 10-year-old Marwa Al-Miri picked up several days ago, thinking it was already spent. She, her cousin, and a friend had gone to the edge of the village of Ait al-Shaab, on the border and the scene of intensive hand-to-hand combat.

"We went to see Israel from the house," Marwa explains, after returning from hospital with bandages covering shrapnel wounds on her legs. Her relatives are still there, with more serious injuries.

"We saw the Jews," says Marwa. "We were coming back through the house ... I picked up [the cluster bomb]. I threw it, and it exploded."

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