A preliminary US State Department report has found that Israel violated US-Israel arms agreements governing the use of cluster bombs during the war in Lebanon last summer, US administration officials told The Jerusalem Post this weekend. Congress is expected to be briefed on the conclusions of the report in the coming week. The State Department investigation was launched following an outcry by the UN, several human rights groups and many Arab outlets charging that the bomblets had caused tremendous collateral damage and left Lebanese civilian areas covered with unexploded ordinance. Use of cluster munitions exported by the US to Israel is governed by confidential agreements. When the State Department investigation began in late August, however, The New York Times noted that various news reports had specified that US-delivered cluster bombs can be used only in combat with organized Arab armies and clearly defined military targets, under conditions like those that existed in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars.
'N' Command ordered cluster bombing' (Nov. 29)
Safer Israeli cluster bombs not used (Nov. 21)
The second Lebanon war: JPost.com special report
Israel was also criticized during the first Lebanon war for misuse of cluster munitions in civilian areas. In that case, the US Congress launched an investigation and the Reagan administration ended up banning cluster bomb sales for more than half of the Eighties.
It remains unclear what the consequences of the current State Department findings will be, but one source said, "The conclusions can't be ignored."
Cluster bombs eject multiple sub-munitions over a wide area. Those that do not explode on impact can be lethal when encountered later by civilians.
Israel contends that the use of cluster bombs is in accordance with international law and that the IDF didn't target civilians during last summer's war, in contrast to Hizbullah, which hid among civilians and used them as shields.
"The IDF does not deliberately attack civilians and takes steps to minimize any incidental collateral harm by warning them in advance of an action, even at the expense of losing the element of surprise," read a Foreign Ministry memo issued at the end of the war.
The IDF spokesman also defended its military tactics at the time, saying, "The IDF only uses weapons that are legal... All of the weapons and methods used by the IDF are permitted by international law." IDF regulations permit the use of cluster bombs in open unpopulated areas.
An IDF probe revealed, however, that the Artillery Corps fired the munitions into populated areas during the final days of the war.
UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland harshly criticized the use of the cluster bombs as the war was ending.
"What's shocking and completely immoral is 90 percent of the cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution," Egeland said soon after the war's conclusion.
"Cluster bombs have affected large areas - lots of homes, lots of farmland. They will be with us for many months, possibly years," he added. "Every day people are maimed, wounded and killed by these weapons. It shouldn't have happened."
But pro-Israel groups in the US have challenged some of the charges made against the IDF's use of cluster bombs, saying the organizations collecting the information have their own biases and agendas opposing the use of cluster bombs.
The State Department investigation took the UN findings into consideration but also relied on American sources for this initial report, according to the administration officials.