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Was DU Weaponry Used in the Lebanese War of 2006?

The controversy over whether or not the Israelis used DU munitions during their invasion of Lebanon last summer was sparked by an article in the Lebanese Daily Star on August 21.
13 December 2006 - Gretel Munroe

Two eminent Lebanese physicists had found soil samples in a crater created by Israeli munitions in Khiam which, when tested with a Geiger counter owned by a local scrap metal dealer, appreared to contain: “a high degree of unidentified radioactive materials”.1

In the months to come, soil samples and other materials in Lebanon were subsequently tested by Dr Chris Busby of Green Audit, UNEP and Henk van der Keur, a chemical engineer with the Laka Foundation. Dr. Busby and his colleague Dai Williams theorised that the crater had been made by a “bunker busting conventional uranium penetrator weapon employing enriched uranium”, while UNEP and van der Keur found no evidence that depleted uranium munitions or other uranium weapons had be used in the war. The issue of bunker busters containing DU or other uranium is controversial in and of itself, and will not be dealt with here.

Williams had collected samples from craters made by Israeli munitions in Lebanon. The samples discussed by Busby and Williams in Evidence of Enriched Uranium in guided weapons employed by the Israeli Military in Lebanon in July 2006: Preliminary Note (Green Audit Research Note 6/2006, Oct. 20, 2006) were just two of the samples collected. One, from near the crater in Khaim gave evidence of being enriched uranium (U238:U235 was 108) while the other sample from a crater in at-Titi was found to be mildly enriched. The two samples were tested by a scintillation counter and a CR39 alpha tracking plastic technique. The outer surface of the sample from the Khiam crater was blackened. The samples were sent to Harwell Laboratory as well as another laboratory for further testing in order to estimate the presence of different uranium isotopes in the samples. The two laboratories gave similar results, according to Busby.2

Since then, Busby has found traces of enriched uranium in an air filter of an engine in a Lebanese ambulance which was hit by an Israeli weapon on the 16th day of the war. Busby says: “The filter analyses (by Harwell Scientifics) suggest strongly that weapons deployed in the Lebanon contained enriched uranium….” Findings were similar to those of the soil samples found in craters created by Israeli munitions.3

Unexploded cluster bomblet in farmland near the southern Lebanese village of Siddiqine.
Unexploded cluster bomblet in farmland near the southern Lebanese village of Siddiqine.

UNEP spent three weeks in Lebanon between September 30 and October 21, initially at the request of Friends of the Earth, who wanted UNEP to investigate environmental contamination in both Lebanon and Israel. A sub-team looked into the question of use of DU munitions and other non-conventional weapons. The sub-team collected various samples: smear samples and dust and soil samples from 32 different sites in southern Lebanon near the Litani River – north and south of it. The samples were analyzed by an “internationally recognised laboratory” in Switzerland during October and November. A final report is due out in mid-December.4

UNEP found no evidence of DU munitions or uranium munitions in its samples, including the smear samples. Any radiation present was in the range of natural background radiation. They also found no DU shrapnel or pieces of weaponry that were not from weapons of “well-known design.”

Henk van der Keur went to Lebanon in late September with a Dutch fact-finding mission. He met with one of the Lebanese physicists, Dr. Ali Kobeissi, a nuclear physicist, who had found radioactivity in the crater in Khiam using a Geiger counter belonging to the local scrap dealer. He had found however that the dose rates of radioactivity in his samples had been decreasing daily.

Dr.Kobeissi had collected samples from shrapnel and soil from about 50 sites, including samples from the crater at at-Tiri. Dr. Kobeissi had found 50 nanosieverts (nSv) per hour on the outside rim of pits and 300 nSv per hour in the deepest parts of the majority of the pits, with one sample having the highest level of radioactivity, approximately 800 Sv/h. Most of the samples had radioactivity doses above background radiation as determined by a Laka Foundation calibrated Geiger counter. Van der Keur told Dr. Kobeissi that the higher radiation “could be due to the concentrations of uranium in the ash (concentrated background radiation) from the burnt material.” Dr. Kobeissi agreed that this might be the explanation. Van der Keur also tested soil samples above and beyond those collected by Dr. Kobeissi with the same results.

Van der Keur in his report 5 on his trip to Lebanon states that there were no armoured tanks in Lebanon – DU shells are anti-tank shells. He also noted that mine-clearance teams working in southern Lebanon in the many areas hit by cluster bombs, had found no spent DU shells. Furthermore, van der Keur quoted a member of Human Watch Rights as saying that few bunker buster bombs had been used in Lebanon, even on bridges, and that the Israelis had done serial bombing most of the time.

The controversy over the use of uranium weapons in the Lebanese War has not been laid to rest but none of the preliminary reports released so far suggest that depleted uranium munitions were used. However, more research on the ground is urgently needed and we await the final reports into the war with interest.

End Notes

1. Mohammed Zaatari, “Scientists suspect Israeli arms used in South contain radioactive matter”, The Daily Star, August 21, 2006.

2. Discussion based on “Evidence of Enriched Uranium in guided weapons employed by the Israeli Military in Lebanon in July 2006, Preliminary Note” by Chris Busby and Dai Williams, Green Audit Research Note 6/2006, Oct. 20, 2006 and “Lebanon ambulance air filter reveals use of enriched Uranium bomb” both of which can be found at www.llrc.org.

3. Ibid, “Lebanon ambulance air filter reveals use of enriched Uranium bomb”.

4. See “No Evidence of Radioactive Residue in Lebanon Post Conflict Assessment, Statement attributable to Achim Steiner, United Nations Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Nairobi Nov. 7, 2006 at http://tinyurl.com/yjzukw

5. Information on Henk van der Keur’s interview with Dr. Kobaissi can be found in Henk van der Keur’s report which can be found on the ICBUW website or through the author at zgmunroe@earthlink.net .