By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
The State Department notified Congress yesterday that Israel may have violated U.S. rules prohibiting the use of American-made cluster bombs in civilian areas during last summer's war in Lebanon.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to confirm that the preliminary findings related to Israel's use of the weapons in civilian areas, citing classified military-sales agreements between Israel and the United States. But the State Department said last August that it opened the investigation because human rights groups complained that cluster weapons -- bombs that erupt with many little "bomblets" to maximize the number of people killed -- had been found across Lebanon and were responsible for many civilian deaths.
"There may likely could have been some violations" of the agreement governing the U.S. sales, McCormack said, stressing that the State Department has not made any final judgments but is required, under law, to notify Congress of its preliminary findings. He said the classified report was sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden's staff said it was received late yesterday but they had no comment because the report is classified; Pelosi's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The war started after Hezbollah militants crossed into Israel, killing and capturing Israeli soldiers. After Israel responded, Hezbollah fired thousands of weapons on Israeli population centers from its bases in south Lebanon, frequently from civilian areas.
Israel provided "a detailed response" to the United States "regarding Israel's effort to halt Hezbollah's attacks on civilian populations," said David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy. "Israel suffered heavy casualties and acted as any government would in exercising its right to self-defense."
It is not illegal under international law to use cluster weapons against enemy combatants. The United States has used cluster bombs in Iraq, resulting in many civilian casualties. The Israeli Defense Forces, which says it urged people to flee areas near missile launchers to minimize civilian deaths, is investigating whether cluster bombs were heavily used in populated areas in the final days of the month-long war.
Hezbollah "used human shields, they hid themselves among civilian populations," McCormack said. "No military commander wants to have to be put in the position of acting in self-defense and going after those people who have committed aggression against your country but are then hiding among civilian populations."
Human Rights Watch urged a cutoff yesterday of cluster-bomb sales to Israel. "We've investigated cluster munitions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but we've never seen use of cluster munitions that was so extensive and dangerous to civilians," Steve Goose, director of the group's arms division, said in a statement.
The State Department investigates any 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" agreements by using U.S. weapons for purposes other than defense, according to the Congressional Research Service. But the inquiries resulted in no penalties. In 1982, the Reagan administration suspended sales of cluster bombs to Israel for six years after a congressional investigation found that Israel violated agreements on their use during its invasion of Lebanon.