Cluster Bombs a Vestige of Israel's Lebanon Fight

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Melissa Block talks with Anthony Shadid, foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, about the problem of small, unexploded cluster bombs in southern Lebanon. About the size of a soda can, they may number more than 1 million. Most were dropped during the last three days of the fighting.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Israel has said it hopes to withdraw the last of its soldiers from Lebanon by the end of the week, turning control of the last captured areas over to international forces and the Lebanese army. But a legacy of Israel's military offensive against Hezbollah will remain on the ground literally in the form of an estimated one million unexploded bomblets dispersed by cluster bombs. U.N. officials say the munitions wound or kill three people a day.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid has been traveling through southern Lebanon. He joins us from Beirut. Anthony, explain for us if you could what these bomblets look like.

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (The Washington Post): They're actually remarkably small. They're probably the size of a cell phone, maybe a little bit wider. And they have a white ribbon that comes off the end of them that are used to help their descent. And their color is usually greenish brown.

BLOCK: Now as I understand it, it was not illegal for Israel to use cluster bombs.

Mr. SHADID: Right. Cluster bombs themselves are not banned under international agreement. What is banned is the indiscriminate use of weapons in civilian areas. If they are hit in villages, hit in civilian areas, somebody would argue that these bombs themselves become an indiscriminate weapon and therefore they would be banned under certain international agreement.

BLOCK: What does the U.N. in southern Lebanon saying about the numbers of these bomblets that they're seeing and what kind of progress they're making in diffusing them?

Mr. SHADID: You know, when you talk to U.N. officials, I think most often they're just stunned by the scope of the problem, and not just the scope of the problem itself but the way that the problem is growing. Early on the estimate was there were hundreds of thousands of these bomblets. And now they're talking about as many as a million and perhaps even more than a million.

BLOCK: And you report that a lot of these cluster bombs seem to have been dropped in the very last days of this war.

Mr. SHADID: You know, it's not too strong of a word, I think, to use like dumbfounded when you ask U.N. officials what happened and what the situation is on the ground with the cluster bombs right now. Their understanding and their estimate is that as many as 90 percent of these cluster bombs were fired in the last 72 hours of the conflict, the last three days of the conflict.

You know, why that's the case is still unclear. And Israeli officials have been somewhat tightlipped on what the strategy was and what their sense of the use of the cluster bombs was. But it really isn't clear at this point why such an intensity of these cluster bombs in the last stage of the conflict, and also the repeated hitting of targets.

The head of the U.N. de-mining program, the way he put it to me was that it was the equivalent of shooting at a dead body 20 times.

BLOCK: You said Israeli officials have been pretty tight lipped. What have they had to say to these sorts of criticisms?

Mr. SHADID: The Israeli officials have made the point that cluster bombs are not banned under international law, which is correct. The one statement that they've used several times about the use of the cluster bombs that they were fired within the parameters of international agreement. You know, some people would contest that, obviously, given the situation on the ground in southern Lebanon. But that's pretty much what the Israeli military has said at this point.

BLOCK: When you travel around villages in the south, how much of an effect are these bomblets, these cluster bombs, having on the people who have gone back to the villages in the south?

Mr. SHADID: You know, it's striking the degree, I think, of paralysis that you find in parts of southern Lebanon. I was in one village called Ded Anoon(ph). Not a very big village and in one field right outside of the village residents had collected more than a thousand bomblets and they had just put them in boxes and dug four craters and left them there for U.N. de-miners to eventually destroy.

You're dealing with the tobacco harvest right now, which is important to southern Lebanon. Olive harvest is coming up. It's a very agricultural area. I think more than of half residents down there rely on agriculture for their income. So what I think you're seeing is a certain paralysis of life down there as farmers aren't able, they're too afraid to go into their field. Workers that they used to rely on to pick olives, for instance, or to harvest the tobacco are reluctant as well to go in.

One family I talked to said that they hadn't left their house. They were worried about walking outside of the yard and walking across from these bomblets, which can kill up to, I think, 20 yards, 25 yards.

So it is striking that, you know, the war has ended. There is a cease-fire. But I think in the sense of the cluster bombs and the implications of this return to normalcy to life, you are seeing it slowing down pretty dramatically because of this fear out there of coming across something that could kill you.

BLOCK: You were talking about villagers who had collected a lot of these and put them aside. How do they do that without them detonating?

Mr. SHADID: Well, it's not something for the faint of heart. I mean that's for sure. There is a certain way by pushing a pen in. But I guess if they're handled gingerly enough and they don't explode that - I mean, obviously, de-miners think it's kind of crazy for someone untrained to be picking these up. The going rate, what I heard from residents down there in southern Lebanon, is that some landowners are paying a dollar or two dollar for each bomblet that's recovered.

So it does become pretty lucrative in some ways and I think for an area that's already in bad shape and that's not reviving all that quickly, it becomes very lucrative cash for certain people who are willing to take the risk.

BLOCK: Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post speaking with us from Beirut. Anthony, thanks very much.

Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.

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