The US State Department said last Friday it has launched an inquiry into whether Israel misused US-made cluster bombs in Lebanon during the US-backed recent war.
Cluster bombs spray large numbers of bomblets over a wide area – which can remain unexploded and endanger civilians long after they are fired.
US-made weapons have been found at many of 300 sites in south Lebanon hit by cluster bombs, according to the UN.
Israel claims all its weapons use conforms to international standards.
State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said on Friday: ‘We are definitely looking into these allegations and we’ll see where they lead.’
He said the investigation would look into what munitions were used and how they were deployed.
A senior White House official said the investigation will focus on whether US-made weapons were used against non-military targets.
Washington has supplied Israel with cluster bombs since the 1970s, on the understanding that they would only be used against defined military targets.
However, the United Nations’ Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC) says it has found 318 sites in south Lebanon where cluster bombs have been used.
UNMACC spokeswoman Dalya Farran said: ‘A lot of them are in civilian areas, on farmland and in people’s homes.
‘We’re finding a lot at the entrances to houses, on balconies and roofs.
‘Sometimes windows are broken and they get inside the houses.’
Farran added: ‘Most of them are from America.’
According to the UN, 12 Lebanese have been killed and 51 wounded by unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs since 14 August, quoting the Lebanese Army’s National Demining Office.
The UN said on Friday: ‘Unexploded ordnance and other ammunitions are now the biggest threat to civilian life in Lebanon.
‘The United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre reports an increase in the number of incidents related to unexploded ordnance and other ammunitions following the return of civilians to the south.’
Although cluster bombs themselves are not illegal under international law, many human rights groups insist that their use in populated areas violates the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks contained in the Geneva Conventions.
A senior White House official said late on Friday that the current US investigation is unlikely to lead to any serious repercussions.
Meanwhile, the UN website’s ‘Humanitarian factsheet on Lebanon’ dated last Friday laid out some of the extent of the death and destruction wreaked by Israeli forces during the five-week war.
It stated: ‘The following has been prepared by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):
• 1,187 dead and 4,060 wounded (Lebanese Higher Relief Council (HRC)).
• Estimated 30,000 homes damaged or destroyed, one quarter of them in southern suburbs of Beirut.
• Estimated $3.6 billion worth of physical damage, including 145 bridges and overpasses destroyed or damaged, 600 kilometres of roads, 900 factories, markets, farms and other commercial buildings, 29 airports, ports, water- and sewage-treatment plants, dams and electrical plants and 23 fuel stations.’
A New York-based Human Rights Watch report from its observers in Lebanon on August 17, two days after the truce was declared, warned of the dangers of unexploded munitions.
Commenting on visits to two sites, it said: ‘Dangerous unexploded submunitions, duds that fail to detonate on impact but are still live and at risk of exploding, are present in areas of Nabatiyeh, Tabnine and Beit Yahoun, as well as areas adjacent to the 3km road connecting Tabnine and Beit Yahoun, UN demining officials said.
‘They have been able to visit only a limited region so far, and fear that the ten sites identified in the first two days could be the “tip of the iceberg”.
‘UN teams have received reports of at least 16 casualties from cluster submunitions that exploded well after they had been fired, and they fear many more.’
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch commented: ‘Cluster submunitions with high initial dud rates effectively become antipersonnel landmines.
‘Even if civilians are not present at the time of attack, they risk stumbling onto the submunitions weeks, months or even years later, triggering fatal explosions.’
The rights group report continued: ‘In Kfar Roumanne, Human Rights Watch researchers examined two areas that had been struck by Israeli cluster munitions.
‘One site was among civilian homes on the edge of the village.
‘Around two homes, Human Rights Watch researchers saw at least six impact marks from submunitions that had exploded, as well as four unexploded hazardous dud submunitions lying in the front yard of one house, and another on a tin roof nearby.
‘Apparently no one was injured in that attack, since the residents had left the village by July 28. The Lebanese army has begun clearing the area.
‘The other site in Kfar Roumanne encompassed a field on the outskirts of the village and an adjacent olive grove.
‘A farmer from the area said the attack took place on August 13 around midday, when the Israeli military fired four projectiles.
‘He was unaware of any casualties.
‘Human Rights Watch inspected the components of one projectile, which appeared to be a US-manufactured M483 155mm artillery shell, which carries 64 M42 and 24 M46 submunitions.
‘At both sites, the dud submunitions pose clear risks to civilians returning to the area. Israel clearly had a right to respond to Hezbollah rockets coming from the grove, but should have used weaponry that did not predictably pose a long-term risk to civilians.
‘A deminer working in southern Lebanon told Human Rights Watch that in ten minutes he identified 100 hazardous submunition duds on the main street of Tabnine, before he stopped counting.
‘He noted at least one case of “catastrophic failure,” where none of the submunitions in an artillery projectile exploded, leaving all of the submunitions scattered on the ground.
‘This projectile landed just outside the main gate of the hospital in the center of Tabnine, he said.
‘The types of artillery-delivered submunitions used by Israel have an initial failure rate of at least 14 per cent, according to US military testing data. The failure rate may be higher in battlefield conditions.
‘Israel should immediately provide information to the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre on the location of its cluster munition attacks and the specific weapons used.
‘Israel should also provide technical, financial, material and other assistance to facilitate the marking and clearance of cluster duds and other explosive remnants of war.
‘With refugees streaming home, we’re already seeing people falling victim to these dangerous duds,’ said Roth. ‘A failure to act swiftly will lead to many more avoidable casualties.’