Hezbollah fired cluster munitions into civilian areas in northern Israel during the recent conflict, Human Rights Watch reported today. This is the first time that Hezbollah’s use of these controversial weapons has been confirmed.
Hezbollah’s deployment of the Chinese-made Type-81 122mm rocket is also the first confirmed use of this particular model of cluster munition anywhere in the world. Human Rights Watch documented two Type-81 cluster strikes that took place on July 25 in the Galilee village of Mghar.
“We are disturbed to discover that not only Israel but also Hezbollah used cluster munitions in their recent conflict, at a time when many countries are turning away from this kind of weapon precisely because of its impact on civilians,” said Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division. “Use of cluster munitions is never justified in civilian-populated areas because they are inaccurate and unreliable.”
While it is not known when and how Hezbollah obtained these foreign-made cluster munitions, and while Hezbollah used far fewer cluster munitions than Israel did in the recent war, the new findings raise serious concerns about the proliferation of these weapons to non-state armed groups, as well as states.
Human Rights Watch has previously reported on Israel’s extensive use of cluster munitions in southern Lebanon during the conflict and has documented civilian casualties caused by these weapons both during the war and afterwards. The UN has estimated that Israel fired as many as 4 million submunitions into Lebanon, which left as many as 1 million hazardous unexploded “duds” still threatening Lebanese civilians and disrupting economic recovery from the war. These submunition duds have caused an average of nearly three civilian casualties a day since the cease-fire.
Cluster munitions endanger civilians in two ways. First, they spread submunitions over a broad area, virtually guaranteeing civilian casualties when fired into populated areas. Second, they leave a large number of duds that become de facto landmines, killing or maiming people well after the conflict.
Each of the Type-81 cluster munition 122mm rockets used by Hezbollah carries 39 Type-90 or MZD submunitions. Each submunition in turn shoots out hundreds of steel spheres, about 3.5mm in diameter, with deadly force. Human Rights Watch discovered evidence of Hezbollah’s unprecedented use of this cluster munition in the course of ongoing investigations of the group’s attacks on northern Israel during the war that lasted from July 12 until August 14. Israeli authorities had until now prevented publication of details of Hezbollah cluster strikes in Israel, citing security concerns.
Cluster Munitions in Mghar
On July 25, 2006, between 2:15 and 2:30 p.m., according to 43-year-old Jihad Ghanem, a cluster munition landed between three homes belonging to his family in the western part of Mghar village (population 19,000). The attack injured three family members: his son Rami, 8, his brother Ziad, 35, and his sister Suha, 33. Rami’s arms bore irregular scars caused by pieces of shrapnel as well as smaller round marks that Jihad said were caused by steel spheres.
Jihad Ghanem, a factory manager, showed Human Rights Watch 3.5mm steel spheres and pieces of metal which he said landed at the scene, and were consistent with the top of Type-90 submunitions. He said he saw in his yard a canister with small weapons stacked on top of each other. This and the relatively light injuries suffered by his son suggest that the submunitions may not have deployed properly.
According to other villagers, the rocket that hit the Ghanem’s property was part of a volley of some 10 to 12 rockets that landed in or near Mghar that afternoon, one after the other. Human Rights Watch could not determine how many of the rockets in this volley contained submunitions, but witnesses said that at least one of the other rockets contained cluster submunitions. Amal Hinou, 42, who makes plate-glass products for construction, showed Human Rights Watch pieces of it that he said he collected in an open field in the Hariq area just outside of Mghar. These included several clearly identifiable pieces of submunitions and their casings.
The Type-90 submunitions are easy to identify. They resemble small cylindrical bells with a ribbon at one end. A plastic band full of 3.5mm steel spheres wraps horizontally around the middle of the cylinder. Inside is an armor-piercing “shaped charge.” The steel spheres carried by Hezbollah’s regular 122mm and 220mm rockets – that is, those that do not contain submunitions – are 6mm in diameter.
Israeli police officials told Human Rights Watch that they documented 113 cluster rockets that were fired at Israel during the conflict, causing one death and 12 injuries in all: in Mghar one death and six injuries, in Karmiel three injuries, in Kiryat Motzkin two injuries, and in Nahariya one injury. The police said they discovered the first of these rockets on July 15 in the Upper Galilee village of Safsufa. A total of 113 Type-81 cluster munition rockets would contain 4,407 individual submunitions.
Israeli police also showed Human Rights Watch physical evidence of a submunition from a Type-81 rocket that they said landed in the town of Karmiel and matched the one Human Rights Watch researchers saw in Mhgar.
Police and army officials did not disclose to Human Rights Watch the estimated dud rate of the submunitions from the 113 cluster rockets that they said they had handled.
International humanitarian law (the laws of war) obliges warring parties to distinguish between combatants and civilians (the principle of distinction) and, when attacking legitimate military targets, to ensure that the military advantage gained in the attack outweighs any possible harm caused to civilians.
Hezbollah launched cluster attacks that were at best indiscriminate, i.e., they violated the principle of distinction by using unguided and highly inaccurate cluster munition models against populated areas. At worst, Hezbollah deliberately attacked civilian areas with these weapons.
Five countries – China, Egypt, Italy, Russia, and Slovakia – produce nine types of 122mm rockets carrying submunitions. At least two other countries, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, also stockpile them.
In November 2006, the Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons will decide whether to begin work on a new international instrument addressing the problem of cluster munitions. Although these weapons have been used in recent conflicts, including Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, a growing number of nations have joined a movement to stop the use of unreliable and inaccurate cluster munitions because of the danger they pose to civilian life during and after strikes.