I visited Muhammad Sannoun, fourteen and a half years old, at his home in Burj al-Barajna to ask him why he had touched the triangle-shaped cluster bomb that had blown off his right arm. “It looked like some kind of aluminum cup painted red on the top, yellow on the bottom, with a black casing on the sides,” he said. “I wanted to open it to see what it was.” Mohammed and two other children accompanying him found the bomb outside a bakery in Burj al-Barajna where they were buying bread, and all suffered shrapnel wounds from the explosion.
Another child resident of Burj al-Barajna, Tariq Mu‘ayyin, 14, found so many of these triangular cluster bombs that he decided to become an expert in exploding them. He explained to me how he picked the bomb up so that neither of its two triggers would go off: “I lift the triangle sideways and then throw it quite a distance at a certain angle so that it explodes when it lands.” He told me that he had detonated as many as 20-25 cluster bombs in one day, and that the shrapnel from such bombs “looks like little nails.”
Tariq also gave me a description of another type of bomb he had seen: “It is the size and shape of a medium-sized battery, aluminum in color, with a white silk ribbon dangling from its trigger. When the ribbon is pulled, it goes off, and scores of shrapnel pellets burst out.”
Verification checks with military experts at various outposts in the southern Beirut suburbs bore out Tariq’s description of this kind of bomb. Residents in Hayy al-Sillim even gave me some detonated samples they had collected. I was surprised to find some samples which were not aluminum in color, but red, white or green. “I doubt the fancy-colored ones were intended for us,” a joint forces military commander in Layliki told me.
If some kids in Burj al-Barajna are becoming bomb experts, others are feeling scared. Tahir Mustafa, 11, described to me with dread how one of his friends, Ghassan, had pulled the ribbon of a battery-shaped cluster bomb and bled to death from shrapnel wounds. “Ghassan thought he was picking up a piece of shrapnel… I will never collect shrapnel again,” Taher said.
In the opinion of Mahir Abu Khalid, a commanding officer in the Murabitun forces, what is even more frightening than “these booby-traps” are the advanced weapons used most extensively by Israel in the war in Lebanon: cluster bombs, fragmentation bombs, scatter bombs, phosphorus bombs, vacuum-packed rockets (ranging between 500-4,000 pounds), 200-pound anti-shelter rockets, concussion bombs. The variety of bombs used and the intensity of the bombing by land, sea and air, sometimes all at the same time, have left thousands dead.
The F-16 and F-15 war planes undoubtedly give Israeli forces unchallenged military superiority. They accurately hit targets spotted on reconnaissance by drones. The F-16 can hit targets from a height of more than seven kilometers. Anti-aircraft fire from the Joint Forces can only reach a maximum height of four kilometers.
The Joint Forces had to improvise ways to protect themselves from such advanced weapons. One fighter from Damour expressed his first experience with the F-16: “My group was on the first floor of a seven-story building in Damur when one of the men turned on his wireless. We didn’t know that the F-16 could pinpoint us when we had our wireless turned on. Within a minute, we heard the sound of the F-16 diving toward us. Three seconds later, a rocket had landed in the room next to the one we were sitting in. We quickly left the building and ran up the slope, not realizing also that the gunboat off the coast could spot us there with binoculars. The gunboats sent our way some fragmentation bombs that put out some white smoke so that the plane knew our position again, and in less than four minutes of our leaving the building, the F-16 bombed us again with another rocket.”
“However, out of 23 men, we only lost one — his leg had been shattered and he told us to leave him to die. We learned quickly that we had to be constantly mobile and keep in small groups, or we couldn’t cope. It’s like the first time we saw fragmentation bombs and scatter bombs and we dived for our foxholes, but some were wounded. We learned that if we covered our trenches with something, then the shrapnel couldn’t get to us. We also learned that buildings were sometimes safer, especially when cluster, scatter and fragmentation bombs were raining down upon us all at one time.”
Lebanon as a Laboratory
While Lebanese and Palestinian military and medical personnel struggled with their limited means to meet the crisis the invasion had provoked, Israel used the invasion as a laboratory for American-made weapons. A Joint Forces military expert described the flattening of a ten-story building near Summerland with a vacuum-packed type of rocket: “When it struck the lower part of the building, tremendous air pressure from the rocket sucked up the air in the building and collapsed the walls. Such strong suction destroys the target building and all those in it at the time but does not affect the buildings around it.”
A military officer at Burj al-Barajna noted that the 107 mm rocket used against shelters was a type never used before. The rocket weighs approximately 200 pounds and explodes over a shelter in three stages. The first explosion exerts great pressure over the shelter. The second explosion emits flames, and the third scatters lethal shrapnel pellets. This type of bomb was used against the engineering school shelter in west Beirut.
A concussion bomb also explodes in three successive stages. The rocket penetrates three floors of a building from the top and then explodes. It penetrates another two or three floors and explodes again and finally propels itself down three or four more floors and explodes a last time. Each explosion creates a great deal of pressure. The concussion bomb in this way can reach the shelter of a building. The pressure that accompanies their explosions usually causes internal injuries — internal bleeding not always evident when the victim is first examined. The pressure produced by these bombs covers a range of approximately 200 square meters.
Fragmentation and cluster bombs both contain a series of small bombs that break down into shrapnel after a series of explosions. Scatter bombs, which are similarly structured, explode in the air into tiny pieces of shrapnel at a high speed, so that they can penetrate foxholes and trenches. A fragmentation bomb is usually wired so that a cord attached to a trigger is fitted with a coil mechanism. If, after the bomb is released in the air, it does as many turns as are in the coil, the bomb explodes in the air. If not, it will land on the earth undetonated until the turn is completed by another movement, usually a human one. The shrapnel of fragmentation bombs is usually larger than that of cluster bombs. It may be released at a distance of 25-50 meters above the ground so that its fragments are distributed over a larger area. Its shrapnel can be destructive to buildings as well as to human beings, for the final pellet released is actually like a tiny fire bomb.
Cluster bombs come packed 350 to each shell with instructions written in English, clearly indicating their American origin. The shell usually opens at about 100-200 meters off the ground and releases its payload. The triangular cluster bomb explodes upon impact of its trigger-head with some object or surface. Those which land without being detonated can explode when the head is simply touched. The other type of cluster bomb (battery-shaped with ribbon, each one containing about 60 shrapnel pellets) detonates when the ribbon is pulled or if its trigger-head strikes the ground after it is tossed.
Cluster bomb shrapnel usually causes multiple wounds, severely damages skin and tissue, and adversely affects blood circulation. More than one doctor told me that small pieces of shrapnel (including those from scatter bombs) are often more harmful than larger pieces. They may be more numerous, penetrate deeper and be more difficult to extract. In the meantime, they leave burning substances in the body which can gradually enter the bloodstream.
The extensive use of fire-bombs, especially phosphorus bombs, resulted in a very high ratio of deaths to injuries, a doctor named Hawari at Haifa Hospital told me. “We were not sure how to treat phosphorus burns in the beginning,” he said. “We tried to treat the blackened outer skin burn at first with water to clean it, but then we realized that this only aggravated the wound because of the oxygen content in the water. So we scraped off the burnt skin and then cleaned the wound with water before applying salves.”
The phosphorus bombs can be air dropped or fired from land or sea. A 155 mm phosphorus bomb gives off huge flames of fire before it explodes. Such fire bombs were aimed at al-Layliki, Hayy al-Sillim and Burj al-Barajna. The bombs leak out asphyxiating yellow fumes and cause damage to buildings whether its construction material is inflammable or not. The fires caused by phosphorus bombs are difficult to put out and require chemical extinguishers.
Doctors at the Haifa Hospital and the Triumph Hotel clinic told me that most of the patients treated since the invasion have been civilians, and that more than 70 percent were suffering from wounds caused by internationally banned weapons.
Civilian and Military Targets
“The Israelis do not differentiate at all between civilian and military targets,” a military officer in Burj al-Barajna said. “And as Palestinians we are civilians who have become military men so that we can fight for the right to become civilians again — citizens in our own country, Palestine. At our last meeting with the regional commander in Burj al-Barajna, we decided that it was our duty to send out garbage collection patrols in addition to patrols to the front. I live in Burj al-Barajna, only about two kilometers from what the Israelis have delineated as ‘the front.’ When I am at home and resting between battles, I am a civilian. So is my neighborhood a military or a civilian area? When the Israelis bomb civilian areas and then we rush to set up military defense posts or anti-aircraft fire, has that civilian area then become a military front?”
I asked an anti-aircraft gunner how it felt to fire at the F-16 when he knew that he couldn’t reach it because it was flying 37,000 feet overhead, several kilometers out of the range of his gun. “The Israelis are afraid to face us. They are afraid to create a real front with us,” he said. “At least I’m showing them that I’m here, that if they would come down to face me, I exist.”