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Human Rights Watch Accuses Israel of War Crimes

The United Nations Secretary General has added his voice to growing concern over the devastating impact on civilians of cluster bombs used by Israel in its recent military offensive in Lebanon.

Speaking on a visit to Jordan on Thursday, UN chief Kofi Annan said, "Those kinds of weapons shouldn't be used in civilian and populated areas."

On Wednesday, Jan Egeland, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, condemned Israel's use of cluster bombs.

"What's shocking and I would say, to me, completely immoral, is that 90 percent 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," said Egeland.

The UN Humanitarian Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) says that up to 100,000 unexploded cluster bomblets are scattered in southern Lebanon.

"Even if there is only one mine in the field, it is the kind of weapon that long after the conflict lies there silently waiting to maim and kill," said Annan.

The Israeli authorities are yet to publicly comment on the UN's criticism. However, an Israeli military spokesman said on August 17 that Israel used these munitions "within the confines of international humanitarian law."

The presence of unexploded ordnance (UXOs) is proving to be a major impediment to the safe return of thousands of displaced people.

"The people returning home, however, are facing massive problems," said Egeland. "Two hundred and fifty thousand of them, in our view, are not able to move into their homes at all because they are destroyed or because of unexploded ordnance."

Cluster bombs, or submunitions, are small metallic canisters, about the size of a torch battery. Typically, tens to hundreds of these bomblets are ejected from artillery shells in mid-flight, showering a wide area with explosions that kill anyone within 10 metres of where they land. Up to a quarter, however, fail to explode.

In Lebanon, many of these bomblets landed on main roads, thus greatly affecting civilian access to public services such as hospitals.

"Many have also fallen into the fields and plantations, thus impeding access to the fields, which once constituted a main source of livelihood for many people in the south," said Astrid Van Genderen Stort, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

"Even those villages that have not suffered massive damages to houses and infrastructure have been affected, because people cannot go into the fields and tend to their crops," she added.

Given their small size, cluster bombs are often mistaken by children as some kind of toy. With a nationwide awareness campaign by UN agencies, Lebanese NGOs, the Lebanese government and Hezbollah, adults and children are learning how to identify UXOs.

"I know what a cluster bomb looks like," said Ali, a 12-year-old resident of Taybe, 70 km southeast of Beirut and just 5 km northwest of the border with Israel. "But my parents won't let me go out into the fields to play because they're worried I'll step on a bomb by mistake, and get hurt."

UNHCR is currently working in coordination with UNMACC, the UN mine clearance agency, to help speed up the UXO clearance process to enable people to return home as soon and as safely as possible.

UNMACC chief of operations in Tyre, Tekimiti Gilbert, estimates that it will take another six months to get the situation under control. "[But] it will take us another 18 months, at best, to eliminate the problem. But that all depends on the availability of funding," said Gilbert.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 brought hostilities between Israel and the armed wing of Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party, to an end on 14 August. Since then, 13 people in Lebanon have been killed by cluster bomb explosions and another 46 injured, according to UNOCHA.

© IRIN   [Integrated Regional Information Networks is a project the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]

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Albion Monitor   September 1, 2006   (

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