David S. Cloud / New York TImes – 2006-08-11 09:33:45
WASHINGTON (August 11, 2006) — Israel has asked the Bush administration to speed delivery of short-range antipersonnel rockets armed with cluster munitions, which it could use to strike Hezbollah missile sites in Lebanon, two American officials said Thursday.
The request for M-26 artillery rockets, which are fired in barrages and carry hundreds of grenade-like bomblets that scatter and explode over a broad area, is likely to be approved shortly, along with other arms, a senior official said.
But some State Department officials have sought to delay the approval because of concerns over the likelihood of civilian casualties, and the diplomatic repercussions. The rockets, while they would be very effective against hidden missile launchers, officials say, are fired by the dozen and could be expected to cause civilian casualties if used against targets in populated areas.
Israel is asking for the rockets now because it has been unable to suppress Hezbollah’s Katyusha rocket attacks in the month-old conflict by using bombs dropped from aircraft and other types of artillery, the officials said. The Katyusha rockets have killed dozens of civilians in Israel.
The United States had approved the sale of M-26’s to Israel some time ago, but the weapons had not yet been delivered when the crisis in Lebanon erupted. If the shipment is approved, Israel may be told that it must be especially careful about firing the rockets into populated areas, the senior official said.
Israel has long told American officials that it wanted M-26 rockets for use against conventional armies in case Israel was invaded, one of the American officials said. But after being pressed in recent days on what they intended to use the weapons for, Israeli officials disclosed that they planned to use them against rocket sites in Lebanon. It was this prospect that raised the intense concerns over civilian casualties.
During much of the 1980’s, the United States maintained a moratorium on selling cluster munitions to Israel, following disclosures that civilians in Lebanon had been killed with the weapons during the 1982 Israeli invasion. But the moratorium was lifted late in the Reagan administration, and since then, the United States has sold Israel some types of cluster munitions, the senior official said.
Officials would discuss the issue only on the condition of anonymity, as the debate over what to do is not resolved and is freighted with implications for the difficult diplomacy that is under way.
State Department officials “are discussing whether or not there needs to be a block on this sale because of the past history and because of the current circumstances,” said the senior official, adding that it was likely that Israel will get the rockets, but will be told to be “be careful.”
David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, declined to comment on Israel’s request. He said, though, that “as a rule, we obviously don’t fire into populated areas, with the exception of the use of precision-guided munitions against terrorist targets.” In such cases, Israel has dropped leaflets warning of impending attacks to avoid civilian casualties, he said.
In the case of cluster munitions, including the Multiple Launch Rocket System, which fires the M-26, the Israeli military only fires into open terrain where rocket launchers or other military targets are found, to avoid killing civilians, an Israeli official said.
The debate over whether to ship Israel the missiles, which include the cluster munitions and use launchers that Israel has already received, comes as the Bush administration has been trying to win support for a draft United Nations resolution that calls for immediate cessation of “all attacks” by Hezbollah and of “offensive military operations” by Israel.
Arab governments, under pressure to halt the rising number of civilian casualties in Lebanon, have criticized the measure for not calling for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.
While Bush administration officials have criticized Israeli strikes that have caused civilian casualties, they have also backed the offensive against Hezbollah by rushing arms shipments to the region. Last month the administration approved a shipment of precision-guided munitions, which one senior official said this week included at least 25 of the 5,000-pound “bunker-buster” bombs.
Israel has recently asked for another shipment of precision-guided munitions, which is likely to be approved, the senior official said.
Last month, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch said its researchers had uncovered evidence that Israel had fired cluster munitions on July 19 at the Lebanese village of Bilda, which the group said had killed one civilian and wounded at least 12 others, including 7 children. The group said it had interviewed survivors of the attack, who described incoming artillery shells dispensing hundreds of cluster submunitions on the village.
Human Rights Watch also released photographs, taken recently by its researchers in northern Israel, of what it said were American-supplied artillery shells that had markings showing they carried cluster munitions.
Mr. Siegel, the Israeli Embassy spokesman, denied that cluster munitions had been used on the village.
The United States Army also employs the M-26 rocket and the Multiple Launch Rocket System in combat, and the Pentagon has sold the weapon to numerous other allies, in addition to Israel. The system is especially effective at attacking enemy artillery sites, military experts say, because the rockets can be quickly targeted against a defined geographic area. Each rocket contains 644 submunitions that kill enemy soldiers operating artillery in the area.
But Human Rights Watch and other groups have campaigned for the elimination of cluster munitions, noting that even if civilians are not present when the weapons is used, some submunitions that do not detonate on impact can later injure or kill civilians.
The M-26 “is a particularly deadly weapon,” Bonnie Docherty, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who helped write a study of the United States’ use of the weapons in the 2003 Iraq invasion. “They were used widely by U.S. forces in Iraq and caused hundreds of civilian casualties.”
After the Reagan administration determined in 1982 that the cluster munitions had been used by Israel against civilian areas, the delivery of the artillery shells containing the munitions to Israel was suspended.
Israel was found to have violated a 1976 agreement with the United States in which it had agreed only to use cluster munitions against Arab armies and against clearly defined military targets. The moratorium on selling Israel cluster weapons was later lifted by the Reagan administration.
This week, State Department officials were studying records of what happened in 1982 as part of their internal deliberations into whether to grant approval for the sale to go forward.
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