Israel Air Force Plans to Destroy Controversial Cluster Bombs

The use of cluster bombs attracted much international criticism during the Second Lebanon War. Now air force issues a bid for commercial companies to destroy them

A researcher examines a cluster bomb that Israel fired on the southern village of Ouazaiyeh, Lebanon, November 9, 2006.
Mohammed Zaatari/AP Photo

The Israel Air Force is looking into destroying a type of cluster bombs that were used by the military during the Second Lebanon War against centers of civilian population. 

The usage of such bombs drew criticism in Israel and abroad back in 2006.

The military has issued a bid to commercial companies to destroy the CBU cluster bombs, which were also used by the air force during Operation Cast Lead.

The air force is to collect the cluster bombs intended for demolition from its various bases in Israel, and they will be destroyed at a base in the south. Their destruction will also include the hundreds of bomblets inside the bombs themselves.

The bombs to be destroyed are of the CBU type, used by the air force during the Second Lebanon War and in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. The IDF has said in the past that it has more modern cluster bombs, less than 1 percent of which do not explode on impact, and that are in accordance with international law.

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The Winograd Commission, impaneled to investigate the Second Lebanon War, also criticized the use of the munitions.

Cluster bombs were commonly used by various countries mainly when opposing armies on open battlefields, when the need arose to destroy missile batteries, armored columns or large numbers of enemy soldiers in a relatively small area. The bomblets released when the bomb is dropped are meant to increase the damage in the area where they are dropped.

Israel had pledged to the United States, which supplied it with cluster bombs of a type known as CBUs, that to prevent civilian casualties that they would not be dropped in populated areas. But contrary to regulations issued by IDF senior officers, thousands of cluster bombs and rockets were used during the Second Lebanon War, some of which were directed at civilian areas. The U.S. government said at the time that Israel had contravened its pledge in this matter.

The army used three main kinds of cluster munitions during the Second Lebanon War: IAF cluster bombs, artillery shells and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. Each rocket contains more than 600 bomblets, which disperse over an area of about 100 meters above the target. The IDF did not disclose the number of cluster bombs that were fired at Lebanon during the war, but according to UN figures, Israel fired more than 4 million such bombs over Southern Lebanon, more than the United States fired in the entire second gulf war.

Human rights groups opposed to cluster bombs say that it is does not distinguish between civilians and soldiers. A good many of the bombs do not explode after they are dropped from an aircraft, and unexploded bombs create a kind of minefield that threaten civilians for years after the fighting has ended.

According to the United Nations, between 20 percent and 40 percent of cluster bombs fired by Israel did not explode during the war. More than 40 civilians, including many children, were killed and another 300 were wounded by bombs that exploded after the fighting ended.

In 2007, Avichai Mendelblit, then military advocate general and now Israel’s attorney general, announced that no action would be taken against senior officers who were involved in firing cluster bombs at civilian populations in Southern Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War. Mendelblit said he did not consider this a criminal offense.

But retired Justice Eliyahu Winograd, who headed the committee that investigated the Second Lebanon War, felt differently. “Use of cluster bombs during the war was an ongoing situation of lack of clarity in directives, lack of operational discipline and of orders.” This, Winograd wrote, “led to cases of deviation from clear command orders in the use of such munitions.” These deviations were “not identified or stopped during the lengthy fighting,” he concluded.

Winograd also noted that many of the unexploded bombs remained in civilian areas after the war and caused death and injury after the fighting was over. “We believe that the position of the Israel Defense Forces should be clarified in this matter, whether the position relies on an interpretation of international law or whether it is an ethical or command-based position of the IDF itself,” Winograd wrote.

Even after the Second Lebanon War, and despite harsh criticism of the army’s use of cluster bombs at the time, Haaretz reported that the IDF continued to use them, before the entry of ground troops, during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009. 

The previous year, in Dublin, Ireland, a document was signed by 111 countries banning the use, manufacture and possession of cluster bombs. Among the countries that opposed the agreement, in addition to Israel, were Russia, the United States, India, China and Pakistan.

The IDF has so far not said that it will be destroying the cluster bombs fired by rockets and artillery shells.