Cluster Silence

I haven’t heard major Jewish groups rush to comment on Israel’s use of cluster bombs in the war against Hezbollah.When they have spoken up, they’ve eitherweakly defended Israel’s actions or expressed their concerns in private.

What a mistake.

Cluster bombs burst into bomblets that disperse over a wide area near the ground. Because many bomblets do not explode when launched — between 14 and 40 percent by varying estimates — they become de facto land mines that can kill or maim humans long after a conflict ends.

That’s what has happened in southern Lebanon, thanks to Israel.According to data collected by the United Nations’ Mine Action Coordination Centre of South Lebanon and by international and Israeli human rights organizations, Israel used between hundreds and many thousands of cluster bombs in its shelling of southern Lebanon.

The cluster bomblets spread over a radius of some 220 yards. As of Sept. 28, according to a report in The New York Times, cluster bombs had severely wounded 109 people — and killed 18 others.

The Times report told, among others, the story of Muhammad Hassan Sultan, 12, from Sawane, a hillside village in south Lebanon now littered with cluster bombs. “Muhammad was sitting on a hip-high wall, watching a bulldozer clear rubble, when the machine bumped into a tree.

“A flash of a second later he was fatally injured when a cluster bomblet dropped from the branches.”

The explosion cut into his neck and head.

As is becoming unfortunately more common, the only real Jewish outrage to these munitions is coming from Israel.

The most damning revelations that Israel was using these bombs were published in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz. A Sept. 12 article quoted the unnamed head of an Israeli rocket unit as saying: “What we did was insane and monstrous; we covered entire towns in cluster bombs.” The commander said that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) used delivery systems called Multiple Launch Rocket System platforms, despite the fact that experts consider them highly inaccurate.The rocket unit head stated that Israeli forces fired about 1,800 cluster bombs, containing more than 1.2 million bomblets.

The IDF response was not, sad to say, an automatic denial. The military spokesman’s office said that “international law does not include a sweeping prohibition of the use of cluster bombs.” Israeli military, it said, “makes use only of methods and weaponry which are permissible under international law.”

In fact, there is ample evidence to conclude that Israel’s use of the cluster bombs in southern Lebanon clearly violated international law. Again it was an Israeli human rights group, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, that made the argument in a letter to Israeli Attorney General Menahem Mazuz that cluster bombing civilian areas constitutes “an extremely severe violation of the basic principle upon which humanitarian law is based.”

The group cited numerous examples where “the firing of cluster bombs in urban areas, with complete disregard for the dangers they pose to the lives of innocent civilians, establishes, prima facie, sufficient criminal intent to carry out the deliberate killing or injury of innocent civilians.”

The State Department is investigating whether the munitions Israel used were American-made. The rules regarding Israel’s use of American munitions are not widely known or clear. But it doesn’t take a Karen Hughes, the Bush administration’s ambassador for public diplomacy to the Muslim world, to figure out that the continuing maiming and killing of Lebanese civilians by made-in-America cluster bombs cannot help America’s standing in the world.

That concern prompted two Democratic senators to introduce legislation that would require recipients of such munitions not to use them in or near civilian centers.

The Cluster Munitions Amendment to the 2007 defense appropriations bill, authored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would have prevented Department of Defense funds from being spent to transfer cluster bombs to foreign countries, unless the Pentagon ensures that such bombs do not jeopardize civilians.The measure lost a Sept. 15 Senate vote 70-30, with all 55 of the chamber’s Republicans voting against it.

At an Oct. 11 discussion in Los Angeles with the Pacific Council on International Policy, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Richard H. Jones underplayed criticism of Israel over its use of the bombs. He declined to confirm reports that the bombs were American made, pending the results of a State Department investigation, and he reiterated the most common rejoinder to Israel’s critics on this matter: That Hezbollah used similar munitions in Israel.

Indeed, Human Rights Watch reported Oct. 20 that Hezbollah guerrillas fired several hundred cluster rockets at civilian areas of northern Israel during this summer’s war with Israel.

He also said that Israel didn’t choose this war, and “war is hell.”I appreciate the ambassador’s defense of an ally, but it doesn’t change the fact that using cluster bombs in civilian areas is morally suspect, to say the least, and a good many Israelis think it is tactically counterproductive.

But American Jewish voices of outrage? Nada.

Look, I understand we live in a time when Israel is under constant attack from a well-Arab-oil-funded propaganda machine. I understand its enemies are ruthless and tireless, and that Israel’s opponents will undoubtedly harp on the cluster bomb issue with nary a word against Hezbollah, Hamas or Israel’s terrorist and dictatorial foes.But it does Israel no favors to stand mute when its policies undermine the country’s own moral foundations and challenge basic notions of humanity.

So here’s a little hint about when it’s time for AIPAC and AJC and the Museum of Tolerance and others to challenge Israel’s actions:When the best defense is “Hezbollah does it, too.”