Cluster bombs: a war's perilous aftermath
Cease-fires end wars. Or so the Zayoun family thought, when Israel and Hizbullah agreed nearly six months ago to stop battling.Skip to next paragraph
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But instead, this poverty-stricken Lebanese Shiite household found new agony when a remnant of this war was brought into their living room: one Israeli cluster bomblet, out of an estimated 1 million such unexploded munitions that carpet southern Lebanon.
The US State Department said last week that Israel "likely could have" misused American-supplied cluster bombs by peppering civilian areas from which, Israel says, Hizbullah was operating. Similar Israeli usage in 1982 led to a six-year ban of US sales of the controversial weapon, though analysts do not expect such a sanction of the US ally today.
But as UN-organized demining teams toil across olive groves and tobacco farms to destroy what they call an "unprecedented" concentration of the controversial cluster bombs here, the casualties continue to mount.
The Zayoun family alone accounts for three of a postwar Lebanese toll that today stands at 184 wounded and 30 dead.
Father Mohammed blames himself for picking up the small metal cylinder and putting it in his bag while cutting thyme in a field that had been marked with red and white warning tape.
Just after nightfall, with the house lit only by a few candles, his 4-year-old daughter Aya Zayoun found the cluster bomb in her father's bag outside. She took it inside to the living room and handed it to her older sister, Rasha, who thought it was a toy bell.
Then it exploded.
"[Mohammed] was ready to kill himself with the guilt," says mother Alia Salman, who was struck with small pieces of shrapnel during the Jan. 5 incident. Son Qassem was hit, too, and 16-year-old Rasha lost her lower leg.
"It's a big shock for [Mohammed] to see his daughter without her leg. Every time he looks at her, his heart is bleeding," says Mrs. Salman.
She says Rasha was "like a genie, jumping around, strong and tough." But now the mother's tears well when Rasha shows the bandaged stump; and Aya clings to her mother shyly, still smarting from being pointed out as "the little girl who carried [the cluster bomb] inside."
Such human shock waves are no surprise for the 55 demining teams working under a UN umbrella, which have never seen such heavily contaminated terrain.
"The scope was extensive and unprecedented in any modern use of these types of cluster weapons," compared to Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003, says Chris Clark, the program manager for the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre of South Lebanon, in Tyre.
UN figures show that 26 percent of southern Lebanon's cultivatable land has been affected, and that 34 million square meters – or 13 square miles – are contaminated.
Israeli officials assert that the cluster bombs were used against military targets, in accord with the international laws of war. Hizbullah also used cluster bombs, though on a much small scale. Human Rights Watch documented two Chinese-made rockets that contained 39 pellet-filled bomblets each, while Israeli police say Hizbullah fired 113 cluster rockets, among the nearly 4,000 Katyushas that rained down on northern Israel.
"From what I saw here during the war, there were daily firings of Katyushas and other missiles from Hizbullah," says Mr. Clark, a 17-yearveteran of the British military's royal engineers. "The Israelis spent four weeks trying to neutralize that threat with single-unit bombing – either iron bombs or artillery. Clearly they failed to do that. So a switch to a [broader]area-type weapon– which is what a cluster bomb is – would make some form of military logic."
Still, the UN says that nearly all the Israeli cluster bombs were fired in the last three days of the conflict, after a UN ceasefire deal had been reached, but before it came into effect – thereby yielding little military advantage. The timing of the Israeli strikes is "definitely questionable," says Clark.