The United States should reject any request by Israel to transfer cluster munitions for use against targets in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch wrote in a letter to National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley today. Civilians in Lebanon have already died from Israel’s use of similar weapons, which blanket a wide area with deadly submunitions.
According to the August 11 edition of the New York Times, Israel has requested delivery of surface-launched M26 artillery rockets for use against locations in Lebanon where it believes Hezbollah fighters are launching Katyusha rockets into Israel. The wide dispersal pattern of submunitions from M26 rockets makes it very difficult to avoid civilian casualties if civilians are in the area. Moreover, because so many of the submunitions initially fail to detonate, M26 rockets leave behind large numbers of hazardous explosive “duds” that are akin to landmines, injuring and killing civilians long after the attack.
“Harm to civilians is inevitable if Israel uses M26 rockets in Lebanon,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “These weapons killed or wounded hundreds of civilians in Iraq in 2003. Washington has a duty not to assist in replicating that death toll in southern Lebanon.”
The United States approved a license with a value of $615,496 for the commercial sale of 1,300 M26 rockets to Israel in Fiscal Year 2005, according to State Department records. The State Department is reported to be weighing Israel’s request for expedited delivery.
The M26 rocket is launched from the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) to ranges of 32 to 38 kilometers and it creates a wide-area effect by dispensing 644 M77 submunitions. A typical volley of six rockets would release 3,864 submunitions over an area with a 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) radius.
U.S. testing data puts the initial failure rate of M77 submunitions at anywhere between 5 percent and 23 percent. British military testing indicates an initial failure rate of between 5 percent and 10 percent. Both governments note that initial failure rates largely depend on ground conditions, range and other operational factors.
“The M26 rocket epitomizes a retreat from precision targeting,” said Roth. “It kills civilians across wide areas and leaves volatile submunitions scattered across the countryside that can kill civilians for years to come. This deadly weapon should never be used anywhere near civilians.”
In the current conflict, Israel has already used artillery-fired cluster munitions against populated areas, causing civilian casualties. According to eyewitnesses and survivors of an attack interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Israel fired several artillery-based cluster munitions at the village of Blida around 3:00 p.m. on July 19. Three witnesses described how the artillery shells dropped hundreds of cluster submunitions on the village.
The attack killed 60-year-old Maryam Ibrahim inside her home. At least two submunitions entered the basement that the Ali family was using as a shelter, wounding 12 people, including seven children.
The New York Times quoted an Israeli embassy spokesman in Washington, David Siegel, as denying this use in Blida, but his summary denial is simply false.
To encourage delivery of the cluster munitions, Israel has vowed not to use them in populated areas, but its actions to date make that vow unreliable. As Human Rights Watch demonstrated in its recent report, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” the Israeli military has repeatedly launched indiscriminate attacks in populated areas, targeting civilian vehicles and houses as if there were no civilians left in southern Lebanon. In fact, despite Israeli warnings to evacuate, an estimated 100,000 civilians remain in southern Lebanon because of infirmity, inability to afford exorbitant taxi fares to leave, or fear of becoming yet another roadside casualty of Israeli attacks.
“Israel’s persistent failure to recognize the reality that many civilians remain in southern Lebanon makes its promise not to use cluster munitions in civilian areas unreliable,” said Roth.
In July 1982, the Reagan administration announced that it would prohibit new exports of cluster munitions to Israel. The United States found that by using U.S.-supplied cluster munitions against civilian targets during its military operations in Lebanon and the siege of Beirut, Israel may have violated its 1952 Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement with the United States. In November 1988, the United States quietly lifted the ban.
The United States stockpiles 369,576 M26 rockets in its active inventory. The Netherlands announced in 2005 plans to destroy its stockpile of 16,000 M26 rockets, citing concerns about the potential to create disproportionate collateral damage. M26 rockets are also stockpiled by Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom. France is considering replacing its M26 rockets, which have unreliable submunitions, with a unitary warhead rocket. Germany does not envisage using M26 rockets until it has been provided with a mechanism to limit its operational life.
The United States caused hundreds of civilian casualties in 2003 when it used M26 rockets in widely populated areas in Iraq, including Hilla, Najaf and Karbala. The strikes were deadly because they covered a broad area and because they scattered a large number of initially unexploded submunitions.