Is Israel’s Forbidden Cluster Bombs Affair Making Another Round in Armenia and Azerbaijan

Amnesty International claims that a cluster bomb made in Israel, apparently fired by Azerbaijan, has been found on the battlefields of Nagorno-Karabakh. In Israel, everyone is keeping mum

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Unexploded cluster bomblets collected after recent shelling in Nagorno-Karabakh, October 12, 2020
Unexploded cluster bomblets collected after recent shelling in Nagorno-Karabakh, October 12, 2020Credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

A few days after the start of the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, Amnesty International claimed that an Israeli-made cluster bomb had been found near the city of Stepanakert, the capital of the contested region. According to the claim, the bomb fell in a residential area after apparently being fired by Azerbaijani forces.

Haaretz Podcast: Why is Israel arming Azerbaijan against Armenia? Listen to Yossi MelmanCredit: Haaretz

“The use of cluster bombs in any circumstances is banned under international humanitarian law, so their use to attack civilian areas is particularly dangerous and will only lead to further deaths and injuries,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s acting chief for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Cluster bombs are inherently indiscriminate weapons, and their deployment in residential areas is absolutely appalling and unacceptable. As fighting continues to escalate, civilians must be protected, not deliberately targeted or recklessly endangered.”

My questions to the Defense Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces and the Foreign Ministry on whether – and if so, when – Israel supplied cluster bombs to Azerbaijan received a “no comment” across the board. Meanwhile, this week it was reported that Azerbaijan and Armenia had agreed on a cease-fire for the second time, after the one declared a week earlier collapsed quickly.

A man holds a unit of a cluster munition in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh, October 4, 2020Credit: STRINGER - AFP

A cluster bomb is a kind of container holding a bundle of small bombs. The mother bomb explodes at a certain height and, over a wide area, scatters the smaller bombs, which explode a short time later. The munitions can be launched from cannons of various sizes, with diameters up to 155 mm, from launchers, helicopters and planes.

These bombs were first used during World War I but became infamous during the Vietnam War, when U.S. and South Vietnamese forces fired them from planes and cannons along with napalm and other chemical substances such as Agent Orange, against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army. There were many civilian victims.

After the Vietnam War, demands to impose restrictions on cluster bombs increased, but the efforts were fruitless. In 1999, U.S. and NATO forces used them during the war in Yugoslavia.

Retired police officer Genadiy Avanesyan, 73, searches for belongings in the remains of his house, which is said was destroyed by Azeri shelling, in the city of Stepanakert on October 10, 2020.Credit: ARIS MESSINIS - AFP

Israeli use

Israel used cluster bombs in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and in its 1978 invasion of Lebanon up to the Litani River and during the first Lebanon war in 1982. But it was especially criticized for its widespread use of the bombs during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, against the orders of then-IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. This led to a condemnation by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and to tension in the United States, because the firing apparently violated the restrictions on using cluster bombs when the weapon was supplied in 1976.

Cluster bombs were discussed during the Winograd Committee’s investigation into the Second Lebanon War, but large sections of the deliberations and conclusions were censored so as not to embarrass Washington. In the sections approved for publication, the committee harshly criticized the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas.

It turned out that Halutz’s orders weren’t clear, so the Artillery Corps used the bombs against his intentions. A major general was appointed to investigate.

After the war there was once again a global effort to draw up an international convention against the use of cluster munitions. This came on top of the October 1980 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which discussed cluster bombs.

A cluster bomb used by Israel in Lebanon is marked by red painting on the Lebanon-Israeli border road near the southern Lebanese village of Naqura, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006.Credit: AP

In December 2008, the Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed in Oslo. It prohibits the use, development, manufacture, storage and transfer of cluster bombs, which it defines as “a conventional ammunition that is designed to disperse or release explosive submunitions” from a container. Over 100 countries signed the accord, which went into effect in 2010. Next month, this convention’s Second Review Conference will be held in Geneva.

Israel refused to sign, though it expressed an awareness of the international concerns regarding this weapon, as it put it. Nearly two years before the convention went into effect, Israeli used cluster bombs in the 2008-09 Gaza war.

All diplomatic efforts to convince Israel to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, at least as an observer, failed. Israel refuses to sign the accord, as well the convention prohibiting the use of land mines. That didn’t prevent Israel, with typical hypocrisy, from joining the 2018 UN condemnation of Syria for using cluster bombs.

Customers in the Caucasus

The two key players in Israel’s manufacture of cluster bombs were Israel Military Industries, which provided them to the IDF’s Armored Corps and Artillery Corps, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which provided them to the air force.

In the past Israel, often sold cluster munitions to other countries. According to various reports, these include the United States, Germany, India, Romania, Switzerland, Turkey, Britain, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela.

Inspecting a cluster bomb unit in the southern village of Ouazaiyeh, Lebanon, November, 2006, that was dropped by Israeli warplanes during the 34-day long Hezbollah-Israeli war.Credit: AP

But according to foreign reports, the largest market abroad for IMI cluster bombs was Azerbaijan, along with various cannons and rocket launchers, some of which weren’t even purchased by the IDF. Most if not all of these sales were made before the international convention went into effect. There have also been reports that Israel sold dual-purpose munitions components, which can also be used in cluster bombs, in a way that let Israel bypass the convention.

Amid the international pressure, especially the legal pressure, the air force decided in 2018 to consider destroying its inventory of cluster bombs. It invited bids for this purpose; the intention was to dismantle so-called CBU cluster bombs, the most common, at a base in the south.

Although two years have passed since the decision, the work has apparently yet to begin. Otherwise, there’s no explanation for the IDF and air force’s refusal to reply to simple questions: Which company won the bidding? Has it begun the work? And if so, how many bombs have been destroyed so far?

Elbit Systems, which acquired Israel Military Industries about two years ago, said: “In the wake of the acquisition of IMI in November 2018, Elbit has discontinued IMI activities related to cluster munitions.”

The owner of IMI until then was the Defense Ministry, which refused to discuss cluster bombs, including any link with Azerbaijan.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems said: “As a rule, we do not discuss the details of transactions with customers due to contractual obligations. Regarding the issue at hand, Rafael does not deal with the subject and therefore does not sell systems of that kind.”

The Defense Ministry, as we have often seen, including in Israel’s submarine corruption affair, is run like a state within a state. Or to be more precise, it’s run as if it owned the state.

True to its aggressive habits, it’s loath to give explanations and refuses to answer questions it doesn’t like. It seems to have something to hide, especially when it comes to its overly intimate relationship with Azerbaijan.

On Wednesday, activist Eli Joseph, who takes part in efforts to ban weapons sales by Israel to dictatorial regimes, is expected to petition the High Court of Justice, demanding that Baku and Jerusalem’s military connections be revealed. Also, Joseph and his colleagues in the Jewish Heart organization will demonstrate in front of the Knesset against arms exports to Azerbaijan, under the slogan “No to war crimes, no to the murder of innocents.”

In that connection, Jewish Heart mentioned the Syrian jihadis who have been hired as mercenaries by Turkey are sent to the battlefields in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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