JERUSALEM - The Israeli army on Monday said it will not press charges against officers who ordered the use of cluster bombs during last year's war in Lebanon, brushing off international criticism that the weapons unnecessarily put Lebanese civilians at risk.
Announcing the results of a more than year-long probe, the army said investigators determined Israel's use of cluster bombs was a "concrete military necessity" and did not violate international humanitarian law. Lebanese officials accused the army of covering up war crimes.
Cluster bombs open in flight and scatter dozens of bomblets over wide areas. The United Nations and human rights groups have accused Israel of dropping about 4 million cluster bomblets during its 34-day war against the Hezbollah guerrilla group.
They say as many as 1 million bomblets failed to explode and now endanger civilians, and earlier this year, the U.S. State Department said Israel probably misused American-made cluster bombs in civilian areas. More than 30 people have been killed by cluster bomb and land mine explosions in Lebanon since the 2006 summer war.
In a statement, the army said its chief investigator, Maj. Gen. Gershon HaCohen, determined "it was clear that the majority of the cluster munitions were fired at open and uninhabited areas, areas from which Hezbollah forces operated and in which no civilians were present."
It said cluster bombs were fired at residential areas only "as an immediate defense response to rocket attacks by Hezbollah" and that Israeli troops did everything possible to minimize civilian casualties.
"The use of this weaponry was legal once it was determined that, in order to prevent rocket fire onto Israel, its use was a concrete military necessity," the statement said.
The conclusions were passed on to the military's advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avihai Mendelblit, who accepted the recommendation and decided not to press charges. The investigation was launched following the war.
In Beirut, a Lebanese government official rejected the Israeli military prosecutors' decision, saying Israel's use of cluster bombs has been condemned by the whole world.
"The Israeli decision indicates that there is no difference between the judicial authority and political authority in Israel. They all work to commit and cover up crimes which are against humanity," the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
The conflict erupted on July 12, 2006, when Hezbollah men attacked an Israeli border patrol, killing three soldiers and capturing two.
Amnesty International has harshly criticized Israel for bombing civilian areas and using cluster bombs during the fighting. It also has criticized Hezbollah for firing nearly 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities and towns.
The fighting left 159 Israelis dead, including 119 soldiers, while in Lebanon more than 1,000 people died, most of them civilians, according to counts by human rights groups, the Lebanese government and The Associated Press.
Israel failed to win the freedom of the soldiers, and Hezbollah has given no signs of life from the pair, who were severely wounded.