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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebanon Tactics in Question

WASHINGTON -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush will inform Congress on Monday that Israel may have violated agreements with the United States when it fired U.S.-supplied cluster munitions into southern Lebanon during its fight with Hezbollah last summer, the State Department said Saturday.

The finding, though preliminary, has prompted a contentious debate within the administration over whether the United States should penalize Israel for its use of cluster munitions against towns and villages where Hezbollah had placed its rocket launchers.

Cluster munitions are anti-personnel weapons that scatter tiny but deadly bomblets over a wide area. The grenade-like munitions, tens of thousands of which have been found in southern Lebanon, have caused 30 deaths and 180 injuries among civilians since the end of the war, according to the United Nations Mine Action Service.

Officials at the Pentagon and the State Department have argued that Israel violated American prohibitions on using cluster munitions against populated areas, sources said. But other officials in both departments contend that Israel's use of the weapons was for self-defense and aimed at stopping the Hezbollah rocket attacks that killed 159 Israeli citizens and at worst was only a technical violation.

Any sanctions against Israel would be an extraordinary move by the Bush administration, a strong backer of Israel, and several officials said they expected little further action, if any, on the matter.

But sanctions against Israel for misusing the weapons would not be unprecedented. The Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on cluster-weapon sales to Israel in 1982, after a Congressional investigation found that Israel had used the weapons in civilian areas during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. One option under discussion is to bar additional sales of cluster munitions for some period, an official said.

The State Department is required to notify Congress even of preliminary findings of possible violations of the Arms Export Control Act, the statute governing arms sales. It began an investigation in August.

Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said that the notification to Congress would occur Monday but that a final determination about whether Israel violated the agreements on use of cluster bombs was still being debated.

Even if Israel is found to be in violation, the statute gives President Bush discretion about whether to impose sanctions, unless Congress decides to take legislative action. Israel makes its own cluster munitions, so a cutoff of American supplies would have mainly symbolic significance.