In Lebanon, a War's Lethal Harvest
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
DEIR QANOUN, Lebanon -- The messages scrawled in red on the concrete, stone and cinder-block walls near Ali Saqlawi's house are worded differently but mean the same: "CB," "cb strike," "cluster strike." Arrows point with deceptive precision in every direction. Saqlawi, a mechanic, needs no warning. He has already seen the thousands of bomblets the size of cellphones that littered his town, the detritus from hundreds of cluster bombs fired in the last days of the 33-day war with Israel.
"I saw them where your feet are," he said, pointing to the ground next to the rubble of what was once his house and garage. He waved toward the parched lemon groves across the cratered street. "You'll find them there," he said. He pointed at the olive orchard behind him, awaiting a reluctant harvest by workers too fearful to enter. "It's all bombs over there," he said.
The scourge of munitions from the cluster bombs now littering southern Lebanon, mostly American-made but some manufactured in Israel, will be a "lasting legacy," the United Nations has said. U.N. officials estimate that the Israeli military fired 90 percent of the bombs during the last 72 hours of the conflict, which began on July 12 after Hezbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid and ended with a cease-fire on Aug. 14. As many as 1 million of the bomblets are unexploded, they say, wounding or killing three people a day. The threat of stumbling across a bomblet has paralyzed life in parts of the south that depend on the harvest of tobacco and now-abandoned groves of bananas, olives and citrus.
"No one's going into the orchards," the 27-year-old Saqlawi said.
His brow sweaty, he watched a bulldozer claw at the wreckage of his house and business. Gray dust billowed up; iron rods still crusted with concrete snapped forward. To the side were the contents of his garage -- mangled car parts and burned tires.
"Rubble and bombs," he said.
International law does not prohibit the use of cluster bombs, which can spread dozens, sometimes hundreds, of smaller munitions, or bomblets, over an area the size of two football fields. But because of their wide dispersal, human rights groups have condemned their use in civilian areas, saying they violate international bans on indiscriminate attacks. The Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on their sale to Israel after a congressional investigation determined that Israel had misused the weapons during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The State Department said it is investigating whether Israel violated agreements with the United States on their use during the conflict this summer.
U.N. officials have said they are still grappling with a problem whose scope has grown by the day. About 100 de-miners on contract to the United Nations are trying to defuse munitions in which as many as two in five of the bomblets failed to detonate. They said many of the bomblets might have failed to explode because they struck soft ground, were snared in trees or other obstructions or were fired too low to the ground to detonate on impact.
Early on, officials estimated that cluster munitions littered 400 sites, anywhere from a house to an entire village. The number now stands at 590, and U.N. officials said they are dumbfounded by the intensity of the firing in the war's last days, when it was clear a cease-fire was approaching.
"It's impossible for me to work out what the logic was," said David Shearer, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon. "To me, it just seems outrageous that it would happen as it did."
Added Chris Clark, the program manager for the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center: "What we've seen are strikes on top of strikes on top of strikes on top of strikes. It's tantamount to shooting a dead body 20 times."
The Israeli military has limited its statements on the matter, reiterating that the munitions are not banned. Last weekend, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces pointed to a public statement first made during the war. "All the weapons and munitions used by the IDF are legal under international law and their use conforms with international standards," it read.