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Israel criticized for cluster bombs

Panel questions adequacy of controls on devices' use in 2006 Lebanon war.

February 01, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In a rare internal critique of Israel's use of cluster bombs, a government-appointed commission has found a lack of "operational discipline, control and oversight" in the army's deployment of the weapons in civilian areas.

The panel's statement, buried in an exhaustive report on Israel's conduct of the 2006 Lebanon war, did not directly challenge the army's assertion that its use of cluster bombs in that conflict fell within the bounds of international humanitarian law.

But the five-member panel raised questions about the army's use of the ordnance against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanese villages from which civilians had fled but to which they would eventually return.

Cluster bombs spray deadly bomblets over a wide area. The United Nations and human rights organizations say that Israel unleashed about 4 million bomblets in southern Lebanon during the 34-day war against the militant Islamic group, and that up to 1 million of them failed to explode and now endanger civilians.

U.N. monitors in Lebanon say 26 civilians have been killed in explosions in southern Lebanon since the war ended in August 2006, most of them from leftover Israeli cluster bombs.

The Winograd Commission, named for the retired Israeli judge who has headed it, issued its long-awaited report Wednesday. The panel criticized Israeli leaders' strategic and operational blunders in the inconclusive campaign, which Israelis widely view as a psychological defeat.

In Israel, attention focused on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's escape from personal rebuke by the panel. Olmert told confidants Thursday that he would resist calls by opposition leaders for his resignation, and he was under little public pressure from partners in his governing coalition to step down.

Many abroad viewed the report's focus on strategic mistakes as having glossed over the issue of responsibility for wartime civilian deaths.

Amnesty International criticized the report for ignoring what it called "grave violations of international law" by Israel. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's office called the lingering presence of unexploded bomblets in southern Lebanon "a daily war crime."

At least 1,035 Lebanese, most of them civilians, died in the conflict, along with 119 Israeli soldiers and 39 Israeli civilians. Both Hezbollah and Israel drew international criticism during the war for killing civilians.

The Winograd panel explained that it avoided an in-depth study of such allegations against Israel because it was "inappropriate to deal with issues that are part of a propaganda war."

The panel nonetheless devoted a six-page appendix of the 629-page report to the issue of cluster bombs, which had also been the subject of a yearlong inquiry within the army.

The army inquiry concluded in December that the bombs were "a concrete military necessity" in Lebanon and did not violate international laws that aim to protect civilians from deliberate wartime attack. On that basis, the army chose not to press charges against several officers who had used the weapons against Hezbollah.

The Winograd panel did not dispute the army's finding. But it asked the army to clarify how its practice of dropping cluster bombs on temporarily uninhabited villages squares with international law. And it questioned the practice of giving field commanders discretion on when to use cluster bombs in such places.

"Our main concern is the vagueness existing in the [army] throughout the war and continuing today concerning the legality of the use of cluster munitions and the conditions necessary for such use," the panel's report said.

It called for a reevaluation of cluster bomb use, with participation by nonmilitary specialists, and public disclosure of the results. New guidelines should be drafted and reviewed by Israel's attorney general, the report said.

Meantime, it added, the army should develop less-dangerous bombs and better document the whereabouts of unexploded bombs.

A statement by the army said it was studying the report's recommendations based on lessons of the war, with the aim of correcting failures. It declined to comment on specifics.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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