New evidence indicates that Israeli use of American-made cluster weapons in Lebanon may have been more widespread and indiscriminate than has previously been reported. If true, this would constitute violations of US arms export law, bilateral US-Israel defense agreements, and a 1976 pledge by Israel to limit the use of such weapons.
The new information comes from Franklin Lamb, who has visited Lebanon six times in the past 18 months, most recently in July and August. A lawyer and economist, Dr. Lamb is a researcher and university teacher who has worked for the House Judiciary Committee.
Dr. Lamb has documented damage and casualties from cluster weapons in 18 areas in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon, including 14 specific locations in west Beirut. He has gathered 75 affadavits from doctors and other medical personnel at 19 hospitals and clinics who treated people (many of them children and elderly persons) injured by the cluster weapons.
He also has identified four specific types of American-made cluster munitions (including the type that killed a US marine recently) and brought to this country parts of such weapons, unexploded ordinance, and cannisters from which cluster bomb units (CBUs) are dispersed. He has shared some of this new information with Defense and State Department officials, and will shortly be providing it to the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees.
The Reagan administration in July suspended the shipment of cluster weapons to Israel, following reports of their possible misuse. An investigation was supposed to follow, but a State Department official this week conceded that the United States was merely ''watching'' the situation and said it was unlikely there would be findings soon, if at all.
For its part, Israel does not deny using cluster bombs in Lebanon and concedes that some were dropped in civilian areas. But this was because the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had placed its heavy weaponry (including antiaircraft batteries and artillery) in populated areas, says a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy here.
In 1976, Israel agreed to use cluster weapons only against military targets and only against organized Arab armies. Because of the size and armament of the PLO in Lebanon, says Israeli spokesman Nachman Shai, ''this was no longer a terrorist organization, this was very much a regular army.''
Pentagon officials describe cluster munitions as designed to be used principally against ''lightly armored military equipment.'' But Mr. Shai of the Israeli Embassy says Israel used CBUs in Lebanon as ''an antipersonnel weapon.''
''It doesn't do anything to buildings or tanks,'' he says. ''But it does do a lot to people.''
The key questions in this instance are ''which people'' and ''where?''
From his investigation, Dr. Lamb found that ''children and elderly, as well as known civilians, accounted for approximately 75 percent, if not more, of those injured by cluster bombs.'' One surgeon in west Beirut told him that 40 to 50 percent of cluster bomb injuries brought to his hospital resulted in amputation.
Dr. Lamb found evidence that Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were very much aware of the cluster bombs, indicating that the use of CBUs was widespread. In and around Palestinian camps, for example, he found hand-drawn posters with pictures of four types of CBU and warnings in Arabic not to touch them.
He learned of children who became adept at picking up the M-43 antipersonnel grenade (the American-made CBU munition known as the ''butterfly bomb'') and throwing it over a wall where it would explode.
Dr. Lamb found learned of numerous instances where children were attracted to the M-43 or to the M-42, which is about the size and shape of a flashlight battery.
Among those he talked with were Mustafa Yaffi, director of the Lebanese civil defense agency, and Ahmed Malek, postmaster general of Lebanon and head of the Lebanese Scouts. The central post office in Lebanon was struck by a CBU cannister filled with bomblets, and Boy and Girl Scouts helped civil defense officials warn residents of unexploded CBU ordinance.
''I think this is compelling and probative evidence of widespread use,'' says Dr. Lamb. ''It is certainly widespread - I think we've proven that - and it appears also to have been indiscriminate when you consider where some of these hit.''
What follows from this investigation remains to be seen.
The US Arms Export Control Act forbids the use of American-made weapons except for defensive purposes. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Clement Zablocki (D) of Wisconsin, who oversees foreign aid, has said Israel violated this law in using American-made weapons in its invasion of Lebanon.
Other lawmakers expressed similarly strong sentiments to Menachem Begin when the Israeli prime minister was here in June. It seems unlikely that Congress will reduce aid to Israel as a result of the recent controversial war in Lebanon , according to Capitol Hill sources.
But Congress has yet to pass the 1983 foreign aid appropriation, and may be less inclined to approve increases sought by the administration once the election are over.
The suspension of the shipment of 4,000 cluster artillery shells probably is not of much importance itself. Israel still has large stocks of cluster weapons, and manufacturers its own (over which there are no US controls regarding use).
If US officials confirm Dr. Lamb's findings, however, and agree that US laws and Israeli agreements have been violated, other steps might be taken. These could include extending the suspension of 75 US-made F-16 fighter aircraft; and limiting the 1983 military aid appropriation, or the 1984 aid proposal now being drafted by the White House.