Shoot to Maim

Israel’s Favored Ammo is Crippling a Generation of Young Palestinians

Held up to the light, the X ray of Fouad Mahed's right femur resembles a piece of the sky on a clear desert night: countless specks of white scattered against an ink-black backdrop.

But this milky way is actually hundreds of fragments of lead and bone, the result of a bullet from an Israeli rifle that shattered Mahed's leg. The image itself is of something that no longer exists. After massive blood loss, doctors were forced to amputate the limb two weeks after the shooting.

"Surgery is easy when you know the anatomy," says Dr. Nasri Khoury, tracing the outline of Mahed's femur with a pen. "But when the anatomy is destroyed, the surgeon is at a loss."

Ahmed Zakhi, 15, spent 20 days in a coma.
photo: Heidi Zeiger
Ahmed Zakhi, 15, spent 20 days in a coma.

Thousands of Palestinian young men and boys may become permanently crippled from bullet wounds suffered during the last five months of stone-throwing protests against Israeli rule. As with Fouad Mahed, a carpenter from Gaza, many of the 11,000 injuries came when unarmed people were shot.

The high rates of crippling injuries are in large part due to the fragmenting bullets fired by M16s. The American-made Colt weapons, introduced during the Vietnam War as lightweight field rifles capable of inflicting maximum damage on the enemy, are being used increasingly by the Israel Defense Forces against civilian demonstrators. The M16 ammunition often breaks into tiny pieces after penetration, ripping up muscle and nerve and causing multiple internal injuries, much like those of the internationally banned dumdum bullets.

Forensics experts in the United States and Europe, who agreed for this article to examine the X rays of Fouad Mahed and other wounded Palestinians, confirm repeated casualties from M16s, shotguns, and other live ammunition. These images, together with other X rays seen in West Bank and Jordanian hospitals, show a pattern some forensics specialists call a "lead snowstorm," the fragmentation of high-velocity military ammunition, fired at civilians. Many of the wounded were hit at short range—less than 100 meters—compounding internal damage.

The reliance on these rounds is part of what human rights groups have denounced as excessive use of Israeli force against mostly unarmed Palestinians. "Shooting people with high-velocity bullets to wound them is a form of summary punishment being inflicted in the field," says Dr. Robert Kirschner of the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Human Rights.

It's not yet clear how newly elected prime minister Ariel Sharon, a lifelong hard-liner, will handle the spiraling conflict. Last week the IDF sent helicopter gunships to assassinate a senior Palestinian security officer. The next day, a Palestinian bus driver plowed into a bus stop, killing seven Israeli soldiers and one civilian. Charges continued that Israeli troops were firing live ammunition into unarmed crowds before trying to scatter them with tear gas or water cannons, as the military code requires—the same charges the IDF denied under Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak.

"Every new victim wounded or killed is not a goal for us," says Major Olivier Rafowicz, a spokesperson. "The violence is initiated by the other side. If they can show victims, wounded, blood, children—it is only serving the Palestinian interest: 'See, we are only doing popular activities, and the bad Israeli guy is killing us for nothing.' We are not interested in that on the Israeli side."

Major Rafowicz argues that Israel has exercised considerable restraint in the face of life-threatening demonstrations, with gunfire from Palestinians. In addition, he says, Israel has tried unsuccessfully to acquire nonlethal riot control from several European countries. Nevertheless, Rafowicz insists, IDF soldiers operate under strict rules of engagement. "We open fire only on people who are endangering our lives," he says. "You can kill someone with a rock. A stone is a weapon."

Adds another IDF spokesperson: "We don't shoot live bullets when nobody's shooting at us."

Yet in more than 100 interviews for this article, patients, doctors, and medical personnel in 14 hospitals and clinics in Jordan and the West Bank paint a far different picture. With no shooting from the Palestinian side, and often little or no use of tear gas to disperse the protests, Israeli soldiers have repeatedly fired live ammunition into unarmed crowds.

Ibrahim Mustafa Darwish, 17, was shot in the abdomen on November 15, during protests at the Erez checkpoint that divides Gaza from Israel. Six weeks later, he lies in bed at Jordan Hospital in Amman. The bandages on his abdomen are bloody and sticky, signs of multiple surgeries to remove a meter of intestines. Israeli soldiers fired at the 18 stone-throwers from a distance of 15 meters.

Fadi Mohammed, 18, was also shot in the abdomen in late November while throwing rocks at a protest. The single bullet exploded two vertebrae, injuring his kidney and paralyzing both legs. He arrived November 30 at Palestine Hospital in Amman, where surgeons removed his spleen and parts of his vertebrae.

Mahmoud Al Medhoun, 15, was hit three times—in the leg, back, and abdomen—by soldiers firing from the hatch of a tank. One bullet lodged in his spine, smashing three vertebrae and pinching a nerve. His right leg is paralyzed. Doctors have removed part of his colon and repaired his liver; he is unable to eat. "God willing, I will walk again," declares Mahmoud. But when his father cites the doctors' opinion that the paralysis is probably permanent, the boy rolls himself into a ball, burying his face in the crook of his arm and crying.

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