By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006
The State Department said yesterday that it has begun a preliminary investigation into allegations that Israel violated U.S. rules prohibiting the use of American-made cluster bombs in civilian areas during the recent war in Lebanon.
State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the investigation began after human rights groups complained that cluster weapons had been found across Lebanon and were responsible for many civilian deaths.
"We have heard the allegations they were used, and we are taking a look at that," he said.
Three types of U.S.-made cluster bombs are said to have been used by Israel. Israel also makes its own cluster munitions.
The State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls will verify whether U.S.-made cluster bombs were used during the conflict with Hezbollah and will examine whether the weapons -- which scatter small bombs, or "bomblets," across wide areas -- were used "inappropriately," Gallegos said.
The agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the use of the weapons are secret. It is not illegal under international law to use such weapons against enemy combatants. The United States has used cluster bombs in Iraq, resulting in many civilian casualties.
The U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center in southern Lebanon reported this week that it has found unexploded American-made cluster bombs in nearly 300 locations across the area.
David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said Israel had not been informed of an official investigation but would cooperate if asked. Israeli officials maintain they imposed restrictions on how cluster bombs are used in Lebanon, such as confining targets to areas designated by Hezbollah as civilian-free missile launch sites.
The State Department inquiry was first reported yesterday by the New York Times.
Any such investigation is likely to be politically sensitive. The Bush administration has fully backed Israel in the war with Hezbollah, arguing that Israeli strikes were defensive. The administration also has urged Israel to limit civilian casualties.
The State Department routinely investigates allegations that Israel misused U.S.-supplied weapons, and often no action is taken.
In 1978, 1979 and 1981, the State Department notified Congress that Israel "may have violated" U.S-Israeli agreements by using U.S. weapons for purposes other than defense, according to the Congressional Research Service. But the probes did not result in any penalties against Israel. In 1982, the Reagan administration suspended sales of cluster bombs to Israel for six years after a congressional investigation found that Israel had violated agreements on their use during its invasion of Lebanon.
During President Bush's first term, the State Department investigated whether Israel misused U.S.-made Apache helicopters in its assassinations of Palestinian leaders. State Department officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose internal debates, said that lower-level officials had determined that Israel had violated its agreements with the United States, but, the officials said, the finding was quashed at a more senior level.