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Israel’s Cluster Bomb War


Of all the statistics to emerge from Israel’s recent war on Lebanon, the most shocking concerns the number of cluster bombs that Israel dropped on or fired into Lebanon.

A cluster bomb is made up of a canister that opens and releases hundreds of individual bomblets, which are dispersed and explode over a wide area, showering it with molten metal and lethal fragments.

About 40 percent of the bomblets dropped by Israel (many of which were American-made) did not explode in the air or on impact with the ground. They now detonate when someone disturbs them–a soldier, a farmer, a shepherd, a child attracted by the lure of a shiny metal object.

Cluster bombs are, by definition, inaccurate weapons that are designed to affect a very wide area unpredictably. If they do not discriminate between civilian and military targets when they are dropped, they certainly do not discriminate in the months and years after the end of hostilities, when they go on killing and maiming anyone who happens upon them.

When the count of unexploded cluster bomblets passed 100,000, the United Nation’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, expressed his disbelief at the scale of the problem.

“What’s shocking and, I would say to me, completely immoral,” he said, “is that 90% of the cluster-bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution, when we really knew there would be an end of this.”

That was on Aug. 30, by which time U.N. teams had identified 359 separate cluster-bomb sites.

Since then, the true dimensions of the problem have become even clearer: 770 cluster-bomb sites have now been identified. And the current U.N. estimate is that Israel dropped between 2 million and 3 million bomblets on Lebanon, of which up to a million have yet to explode.

In fact, it is estimated that there are more unexploded bomblets in southern Lebanon than there are people. They lurk in tobacco fields, olive groves, on rooftops, in farms, mixed in with rubble. They are injuring two or three people every day, according to the United Nations, and have killed 20 people since the cease-fire in August.

“What we did was insane and monstrous,” one Israeli commander admitted to the newspaper Haaretz. “We covered entire towns in cluster bombs.”

As Egeland noted, the majority of these bombs were dropped in the last three days of the war–a time when the U.N. resolution to end the fighting had been agreed on, when the war was virtually over, when it was clear that Israel had failed to accomplish its declared objectives in launching this campaign.

Dropped so late in the war, it’s hard to imagine what specific military objective these bombs could possibly have been meant to accomplish. Instead, they seem to have been dropped as a final, gratuitous act of violence in a war waged against an entire population. The vast majority of the 1,200 Lebanese killed by Israeli bombardments were civilians; one in three was a child.

With 100,000 innocent people trapped in the south because they could not, or dared not, flee on roads that Israel was indiscriminately bombing every day, Israel’s justice minister declared that they were all–men, women and children–“terrorists who are related in some way to Hezbollah.”

Nor was this his view alone. The Israelis dropped leaflets warning that “any vehicle of any kind traveling south of the Litani River will be bombed, on suspicion of transporting rockets, military equipment and terrorists.” The Israeli chief of staff was especially clear. “Nothing is safe” in Lebanon, he said. “As simple as that.”

Israel carried out 7,000 air raids and fired 160,000 artillery projectiles into Lebanon, a tiny country. That’s about two air raids and 40 projectiles per square mile.

But the punishment was not evenly distributed. Israel’s war was aimed specifically at Lebanon’s Shiite population. Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut were destroyed, but other neighborhoods remained untouched. Shiite villages in the south were obliterated–literally wiped from the surface of the Earth–while nearby Christian villages escaped unscathed, mercifully able to shelter their Shiite neighbors.

Israeli officials said this was a war against Hezbollah, that Hezbollah was hiding in the midst of the population. But this wasn’t a war against Hezbollah. It was a war to punish the entire population for its support of the guerrillas.

Not only was Hezbollah not hiding behind civilians, it ought to be obvious that the violence was directed in the first instance at the civilians themselves. To direct such violence at one community, one religious group, one minority–and to deny them the ability to return safely home–was what this war was all about.

To drop two or three bomblets for every man, woman and child in southern Lebanon–after having wiped out their homes, smashed their communities, destroyed their livelihoods–is to wage war against them all.

And we supplied the weapons.

SAREE MAKDISI, a professor of English at UCLA, is the author of Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s (University of Chicago Press, 2003). He can be reached at:



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