Israel May Have Violated Arms Pact, U.S. Says
By DAVID S. CLOUD and GREG MYRE
Published: January 28, 2007
WASHINGTON, Jan 27 — The Bush administration will inform Congress on Monday
that Israel may have violated agreements with the United States when it
fired American-supplied cluster munitions into southern Lebanon during its
fight with Hezbollah last summer, the State Department said Saturday.
The finding, though preliminary, has prompted a contentious debate within
the administration over whether the United States should penalize Israel for
its use of cluster munitions against towns and villages where Hezbollah had
placed its rocket launchers.
Cluster munitions are anti-personnel weapons that scatter tiny but deadly
bomblets over a wide area. The grenadelike munitions, tens of thousands of
which have been found in southern Lebanon, have caused 30 deaths and 180
injuries among civilians since the end of the war, according to the United
Nations Mine Action Service.
Midlevel officials at the Pentagon and the State Department have argued that
Israel violated American prohibitions on using cluster munitions against
populated areas, according to officials who described the deliberations. But
other officials in both departments contend that Israel’s use of the weapons
was for self-defense and aimed at stopping the Hezbollah attacks that
claimed the lives of 159 Israeli soldiers and civilians and at worst was
only a technical violation.
Any sanctions against Israel would be an extraordinary move by the Bush
administration, a strong backer of Israel, and several officials said they
expected little further action, if any, on the matter.
But sanctions against Israel for misusing the weapons would not be
unprecedented. The Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on
cluster-weapon sales to Israel in 1982, after a Congressional investigation
found that Israel had used the weapons in civilian areas during its 1982
invasion of Lebanon. One option under discussion is to bar additional sales
of cluster munitions for some period, an official said.
The State Department is required to notify Congress even of preliminary
findings of possible violations of the Arms Export Control Act, the statute
governing arms sales. It began an investigation in August.
Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said that the notification
to Congress would occur Monday but that a final determination about whether
Israel violated the agreements on use of cluster bombs was still being
“It is important to remember the kind of war Hezbollah waged,” he said.
“They used innocent civilians as a way to shield their fighters.”
Even if Israel is found to be in violation, the statute gives President Bush
discretion about whether to impose sanctions, unless Congress decides to
take legislative action. Israel makes its own cluster munitions, so a cutoff
of American supplies would have mainly symbolic significance.
Israel gave the State Department a dozen-page report late last year in which
it acknowledged firing thousands of American cluster munitions into southern
Lebanon but denied violating agreements that prohibit their use in civilian
areas, the officials said. The cluster munitions included artillery shells,
rockets and bombs dropped from aircraft, many of which had been sold to
Israel years ago, one official said.
Before firing at rocket sites in towns and villages, the Israeli report
said, the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning civilians of the
attacks. The report, which has not previously been disclosed, also noted
that many of the villages were deserted because civilians had fled the
fighting, the officials said.
David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said Israel
“provided a detailed response to the administration’s request for
information” on its use of cluster munitions “to halt Hezbollah’s unprovoked
rockets attacks against our civilian populations centers.”
He added, “Israel suffered heavy casualties in these attacks and acted as
any government would in exercise of its right to self-defense.”
John Hillen, who was assistant secretary of state in charge of the bureau
until he resigned this month, told Bloomberg News in December that Israel
had provided “great cooperation” in the investigation. “From their
perspective, use of the munitions was clearly done within the agreements,”
Another administration official said the investigation had caused
“head-butting” involving the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and the
Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, as well as Pentagon
arms sales officials. Some officials “are trying to find a way to not have
to call this a substantial violation,” the official said.
In particular, the State Department has asked Israel for additional
information on reports that commanders and troops violated orders that
restricted how cluster bombs could be used, an official said. In November,
Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the chief of staff of the Israeli military until his
resignation on Jan. 17, ordered an investigation into whether restrictions
on use of the weapons were ignored by some units.
That investigation is still under way, and military officials have refused
to divulge any details in public.
Israel’s Channel 2 television reported in December that the military’s judge
advocate general was gathering evidence for possible criminal charges
against military officers who might have ordered cluster bombs fired into
Israel has told the State Department that it originally tried targeted
strikes against Hezbollah rocket sites, but those proved ineffective.
Heavy use of cluster bombs was tried instead, to kill or maim Hezbollah
fighters manning the launchers. Israeli commanders employed cluster weapons
because they suspected that they would flee after firing their rockets. Even
those attacks failed to stop the rockets barrages.
The agreements that govern Israel’s use of American cluster munitions go
back to the 1970s. But the details, which have been revised several times,
However, officials said that the agreements specified that cluster weapons
could not be used in populated areas, in part because of the risk to
civilians after a conflict is over if the bomblets fail to self-destruct, as
they are designed to do.
The agreements said the munitions be used only against organized armies and
clearly defined military targets under conditions similar to the
Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, when Israel arguably faced threats to
its survival, officials said.
Since the end of last summer’s war, de-mining team have located 800
cluster-bomb strike areas, and they destroyed 95,000 bomblets, said
Christopher Clark, program manager for the United Nations Mine Action
Service in Lebanon.
“We found them pretty much everywhere — in villages, at road junctions, in
olive groves and on banana plantations,” Mr. Clark said.
The casualty rate has come down sharply, he said. Right after the war, there
were more than 40 casualties a week; now it is about 3 or 4 a week.
Donatella Rovera, a researcher with Amnesty International in London, said
older American cluster weapons used by Israel during the war did not
reliably self-destruct, compared with Israel’s own cluster munitions, which
are newer and are said to have a much lower dud rate.
“We’ve asked them to release detailed maps on where the cluster bombs were
used,” Ms. Rovera said of the Israeli military. “That is the one thing that
could help speed up the cleanup process.”