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In late January the State Department delivered a potentially explosive report to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The classified report asserts that Israel may have violated the Arms Export Control Act with its use of American-made cluster munitions this past summer in Lebanon.
Multiple contacts to both offices indicate neither Biden nor Pelosi has any intention of pursuing the matter. In contrast, a congressional investigation 25 years ago helped persuade President Ronald Reagan to suspend cluster munitions to Israel for six years. This Congress, however, will not call Israel to account for its actions.
Cluster munitions are a ghastly creation on two levels. First, these bombs blow apart into hundreds of smaller bomblets, thus spreading death over a wide radius. Second, a terrifying percentage of them fail to explode at least initially. These "duds" then sit on the ground like mines until the curious child or plowing farmer stumbles across them – often with devastating results.
As recently as July, the US House of Representatives voted 410-8 for a resolution including recognition of "Israel’s longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss" and welcoming "Israel’s continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties" in Lebanon and elsewhere. The language was an open insult to the hundreds of Lebanese civilians already killed and injured in the previous few days by the Israeli military.
Many at the State Department appear uncomfortable addressing Israel’s seeming culpability. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack, normally quite articulate, provided journalists with this circumlocution: "There may likely could have been some violations."
Indeed there were. And a bloody mess it is. Amnesty International asserted in late January that in the previous six months, "Thirty people, eight of them de-mining personnel, have been killed, and more than 180 people have been injured, including 20 mine clearers." Amnesty has called on Israel to turn over maps of where these munitions were used as a means to prevent future loss of civilian life. Israel has yet to provide sufficient information.
Israeli officials have defended the use of cluster bombs and other attacks by contending that they warned civilians to leave southern Lebanon, as though such warnings gave them carte-blanche to do as they pleased. But what if Hezbollah gave similar blanket warnings to Israelis in the north of Israel? Surely it is madness to suggest that a warning provides the liberty to fire rockets indiscriminately into Israel or to litter Lebanese villages and farmland with hundreds of thousands of deadly bomblets. Do the infirm and impoverished with no way out have no rights?
De-mining groups estimate that some 2.6 to 4 million submunitions were fired into Lebanon during the five-week war. Israeli Member of Knesset Ran Cohen stated, "The massive use by the IDF of cluster bombs during the war suggests an absolute loss of control and hysteria." It’s a loss of control with munitions mostly produced in the United States.
We already know from the Israeli press that the Israeli military did not use the cluster munitions in keeping with the orders of then-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. "I don’t know if this is surprising," said Halutz, "it is more disappointing."
In fact, it is more than disappointing. It is criminal and a violation of US law.
Yet there is a real danger nothing will come of the State Department’s report. Pelosi and Biden may not push hard because they dare not aggravate AIPAC. Silence, however, will harm American standing in the region, damage American commitment to human rights principles, and undercut (once again) American national security interests. Congress ought to grapple seriously with this issue rather than suppress the unpleasant facts about Israel’s war crimes in Lebanon.
The failure to hold Israel accountable for its actions against Palestinian civilians (and, for that matter, American civilians) in the occupied Palestinian territories undoubtedly contributed to a climate in which many Israeli military leaders thought they could pummel Lebanese civilians with American-made weapons with no repercussions. So far American officials are proving them right.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, while not addressing the possible AECA violation by Israel, introduced legislation earlier this year to "limit the use, sale, and transfer of cluster munitions." She cited heart-rending examples from around the world of the harm these weapons cause to civilians, including to "Hassan Hammade, a 13 year old Lebanese boy, [who] lost four fingers and sustained injuries to his stomach and shoulder after he picked up an unexploded cluster bomb in front of an orange tree."
Her legislation would do much to limit future harm to children such as Hassan in Lebanon and other innocent civilians in war-ravaged nations. She and co-sponsors Patrick Leahy, Barbara Mikulski, and Bernard Sanders ought to be commended for this legislative initiative. So, too, should Representatives James McGovern, Darrell Issa, and Betty McCollum for their accompanying legislation in the House.
Pelosi and Biden have shrunk from holding Israel accountable for its actions in Lebanon, but could exhibit some overdue leadership by signaling their support for the new cluster bomb legislation.
MICHAEL F. BROWN is a fellow at the Palestine Center. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center.