Injuries in Lebanon revive bid to ban cluster bombs

Cluster bombs have killed at least 22 and injured 133 since the end of this summer's conflict between Israel and Hizbullah.

Hassan Hammade was picking oranges near his home when a strange object fell from a tree in front of him. The 13-year-old picked it up.

"I started playing with it and it blew up," he says at his home in Ras el-Ain village, near the city of Tyre. "I didn't know it was a cluster bomb – it just looked like a burned-out piece of metal."

The bomb blasted four fingers from Hassan's right hand and injured his stomach and shoulder. The humanitarian organization Islamic Relief flew Hassan to Birmingham, England, for surgery. He is expected to return in a few weeks.

"Now I'm trying to write with my left hand at school, but when they give me new fingers, I hope I'll be able to write again and one day play sports," he says.

Cluster bombs have killed at least 22 civilians and injured 133 since the end of the summer's conflict between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas, during which Israel showered southern Lebanon with the US- and Israeli-made bomblets.

South Lebanon's fallout has fueled campaigns for a ban on cluster bombs, akin to the prohibition of antipersonnel mines adopted in 1997. Civilians, many of them children, make up 98 percent of those killed and injured by the munitions across the globe, campaign group Handicap International found in a report of unprecedented scope released last week.

"Military personnel from user countries consider any [environment where cluster bomb attacks have occurred] a minefield, and the claim of disproportionate risk and harm to civilians is unquestionable," said the group, which analyzed the effects of the munitions in 24 countries and regions including Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and Laos as well as Lebanon. Twenty-seven percent of casualties are children, it said.

Daily casualties from cluster bombs in southern Lebanon have dropped to between two and three per day, from a high of more than three per day in the first month after the war, which ended on August 14, Handicap International said. Most injuries or deaths were near houses.

Cluster munitions are not banned weapons. But their use in civilian areas violates the international ban on the use of indiscriminate weapons, campaigners say. The cluster munitions can be effective against hidden rocket sites, to prevent their use again, and to strike individuals in a wide perimeter. Israel has noted that the weapons were used in areas where it had told civilians to flee. That is not seen as sufficient by most analysts.

According to the UN, Israel dropped 90 percent of the cluster bombs in the last 72 hours of the war – when all parties knew a cease-fire was imminent.

Most homes and schools have been cleared since the war ended on August 14. But the UN estimates that it will take until the end of next year to clear about a million lethal duds resembling tubes, balls, or other harmless objects. One child described the bomb that maimed him as looking like a perfume bottle, and villagers have nicknamed a candy bar-sized bomb-type "chocolate."

Winter will make spotting the bombs harder. "Before, the locals could usually see them, but with the rains they'll sink into the mud and be hidden," said UN mines spokeswoman Dalya Farran.

Farmer and father of five Hussam Murtada has taken no chances. "Since the war, we've only let the children play in the house, we don't let them out of our sight," he said. "The cluster bombs affect children most of all. If they see one, they'll play with it straight away."

Lurking danger only compounds the residual impact of the war, which killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians. The Murtada family sat the fight out, unable to afford to leave.

"The kids are still terrified; they only have to see a plane to start crying and run and hide," he says.

Experts say Israel dropped about 4 million submunitions on Lebanon. More than a quarter failed to explode on impact and have effectively become a multitude of landmines. Human Rights Watch accused Hizbullah of firing cluster rockets into northern Israel, though to a lesser extent. The group denies the charge.

The bomblets are devastating rural southern Lebanon's economy, which relies on farming. Summer tobacco, wheat, and fruit rotted in the fields; the olive season is drawing to a close. Fear of the bomblets has stymied harvesting.

Banana plantations around Ras el-Ain have withered and dried. Red paint or red tape by the roadsides warns of those bombs that have been found so far.

"This season's gone," says Murtada, whose home looks out on the family olive groves that no one can enter. "Our economic situation's getting desperate. Even if the UN came now, it's too late – the olives are spoiling. It's the same for everyone in this area. We live off the land."

The UN says Israel has not provided vital information that would speed up clearance and south Lebanon's safety and recovery. "We have been asking for the grid references and how many were dropped, but we still haven't received them," Farran says.

Landmine Action, another campaigning group, also backed a total ban on the munitions in an October report, arguing that southern Lebanon proved international law was inadequate, despite users' protests that cluster bombs are legal if used outside civilian areas.

Some of the cluster bombs Israel dropped were Vietnam-era US supplies, increasing the lethal dud-rate, but Landmine Action dismissed arguments that using modern types would solve the problem, pointing out that one such make, the Israeli-made M85, currently littered southern Lebanon. "The massive and widespread use of cluster munitions across southern Lebanon does not seem to accord with any recognizable legitimate military strategy," it said.

Israel's widespread use of cluster bombs in civilian areas in its 1982 invasion of Lebanon prompted then-president Ronald Reagan to ban US sales of cluster bombs to its ally for six years, on the grounds it had broken bilateral agreements controlling their use. The State Department is investigating whether Israel's use of US-made cluster bombs this summer also breached such agreements.

Israel also used cluster bombs in Lebanon in 1978, 1996 and 2005, the residue of which still kill or maim two people a year, Handicap International said.

Amnesty International called for a ban on cluster munitions in an Opinion piece in The Christian Science Monitor in October.

"The human cost of using cluster bombs in this summer's conflict (in Lebanon) should provide enough impetus to abolish these indiscriminate killers once and for all," wrote Curt Goering, a senior deputy executive director at Amnesty International USA.

For now, Hassan says, his children are feeling the effects of the weapons detritus. "All the children are too scared to go out now, we just play on the main roads or in our houses," he says. "It's as if the war hasn't ended for us."

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