WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON --The Bush administration will inform Congress tomorrow that Israel might 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 yesterday.
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 scatter tiny but deadly bomblets that explode over a wide area to kill or maim people. 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 U.N. Mine Action Service.
Midlevel officials at the Pentagon and the State Department have argued that Israel violated U.S. prohibitions on using cluster munitions against populated areas, according to officials who described the deliberations. 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 a 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 tomorrow, but that a final determination about whether Israel violated the agreements on use of cluster bombs was being debated.
"It is important to remember the kind of war Hezbollah waged. They used innocent civilians as a way to shield their fighters," he said.
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 U.S. supplies would have mainly symbolic significance.
Israel gave the State Department a dozen-page report late last year in which it acknowledged firing thousands of U.S. cluster munitions into southern Lebanon but denied violating agreements that prohibit their use in civilian areas, the officials said. The cluster munitions included artillery shells, rockets and bombs dropped from aircraft, many of which had been sold to Israel years ago, one official said.
Before firing at rocket sites in towns and villages, the Israeli report said, the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning civilians of the attacks. The report, which has not previously been disclosed, also noted that many of the villages were deserted because civilians had fled the fighting, the officials said.
David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said Israel "provided a detailed response to the administration's request for information" on its use of cluster munitions "to halt Hezbollah's unprovoked rockets attacks against our civilian populations centers."
He added, "Israel suffered heavy casualties in these attacks and acted as any government would in exercise of its right to self-defense."
John Hillen, who was assistant secretary of state in charge of the bureau until he resigned this month, told Bloomberg News last month that Israel had provided "great cooperation" in the investigation. "From their perspective, use of the munitions was clearly done within the agreements," he said.
Another administration official said the investigation had caused "head-butting" involving the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, as well as Pentagon arms sales officials. Some officials "are trying to find a way to not have to call this a substantial violation," the administration official said.