Israel probably violated the terms of its purchase of U.S.-made cluster bombs, U.S. officials say, but — unlike the last time Israel used the deadly munitions in Lebanon — it’s unlikely to face repercussions.
The Bush administration delivered a classified report to Congress on Monday on Israel’s use of the cluster bombs in civilian areas last summer in its war against Hezbollah.
The report was preliminary, but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, despite his use of just about every qualifier in the thesaurus, made it clear that Israel probably was on the wrong side of the contract.
“It was the determination based on the facts that we in the preliminary finding — I have to emphasize ‘preliminary,’ it’s not a final judgment — that there may likely could have been some violations of that agreement,” McCormack told reporters.
He would not explain further, and spokesmen for Congress members who received the report were similarly circumspect, citing its classified status.
McCormack suggested that Israel was in violation of its own standing orders.
“This is the area in which we bump up against the fact that these agreements, for a variety of different reasons, very oftentimes it gets into rules of engagement for specific countries, and those themselves are usually classified or tightly held by the foreign national government,” he said. “So we do not speak about them in public.”
Israel, which McCormack said cooperated fully in the investigation, continued to deny wrongdoing.
“We provided a detailed response to the administration’s request for information regarding Israel’s efforts to halt Hezbollah’s unprovoked rocket attacks against our civilian population centers,” David Siegel, the embassy spokesman, told JTA. “Israel suffered heavy casualties in these attacks and acted as any government would.”
Israel has said that it used the cluster bombs in civilian areas long after civilians had fled in response to Israeli warnings, assuming that only Hezbollah combatants remained. Hezbollah, for its part, has made no apologies for firing its own cluster bombs into Israeli cities.
McCormack echoed Siegel’s emphasis on the defensive nature of Israel’s war.
“It’s a fact that [Hezbollah] used human shields, that they hid themselves among civilian populations,” he said. “It was one of the aspects of this particular conflict that made it very, very difficult, I think, for the international system to watch, but also for the Israelis, as well. No military commander wants to have to be put in the position of acting in self-defense and going after those people who have committed aggressions against your country but are then hiding among civilian populations.”
Translation: The United States is unlikely to reintroduce a ban on the sale of cluster munitions it imposed for six years after Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon. That was a war Israel initiated; last summer’s was a defensive war fought against a militia that specialized in hiding among civilians.
The ’82 ban led Israel to manufacture its own cluster weapons. According to Israeli officials, these were more efficient, and it was the failure of the American bombs to immediately detonate that has led human rights groups to raise the issue.
At least 30 Lebanese civilians, many of them children, have been killed by late-detonating bombs since the war’s end.
McCormack’s sympathetic understanding of Israel’s quandary, facing an enemy that used civilians as cover, is echoed on the Hill, said a senior Democratic staffer in Congress.
The report was drafted by mid-level staffers at the Pentagon and State Department, “who interpret their duties narrowly,” the staffer said.
The staffer said Congress was not about to get worked up about any Israeli violation, considering the administration was doing little to confront end-use violations by Pakistan, an ally and client pursuing a nuclear program and in some cases collaborating with the Taliban.
“This administration’s attachment to the law is unique,” the staffer said. “The Bush administration has a history of hypocrisy on this. They were yelling about Israel’s targeted assassinations, and then we start capping people in Yemen with Predators.”
The staffer referred to the first of several U.S. assassinations of al-Qaida leaders, in 2002.
A pro-Israel lobbyist said one possible repercussion is that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) may reintroduce legislation to make the sale of cluster bombs explicitly conditional on not using them in civilian areas.
Feinstein, who is Jewish, said last September that she favored the legislation in part because of the civilians killed in the aftermath of the Israel-Hezbollah war.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.