Shoot to Maim

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

Crippling injuries among Palestinians are estimated at 1500—a figure likely to rise as more of the wounded seek rehabilitation. Palestinian officials say the rate of disabling injuries during this Al Aqsa Intifada, which began in the shadow of East Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque on September 29, is higher than during the first intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993. "The Israeli response to this intifada has been more ferocious, swifter, and more intensive," says Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees.

Lethal fire has come from M16, M3, and M24 snipers' rifles, and from higher-caliber munitions, including concrete-busting machine-gun bullets, grenade launchers, 120-millimeter tank shells, and Hellfire rockets fired from American-made Apache attack helicopters. The heavier fire, say Israeli analysts, has come in response to Palestinian sniping. But even the more benign ammunition designed for riot control, like so-called rubber bullets—steel balls coated with a thin layer of rubber—can be fatal if fired at short range. "They are the nightmare of the neurosurgeon," says Dr. Jihad Mashal. "Every time the patient moves his head, it's like a marble moving in jelly. There's nothing you can do about it."

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

In the first weeks of the Intifada, head and upper-body injuries accounted for a great portion of Palestinian casualties. "A large part of those wounded by live bullets are those we indeed wanted to not only injure but kill," wrote General Giora Eiland in a letter to Israeli human rights lawyer Neta Amar. "These are the same people that shoot at us with live ammunition. The fact that most of them are wounded in the upper body or head is a positive thing."

After a flurry of international condemnation, the rate of head and chest injuries dropped, replaced by devastating leg and abdomen wounds. "I consider it a form of torture," says Kirschner of Physicians for Human Rights. "There's no question in my mind that this was a very conscious military decision to use this weapon to wound people as a form of intimidation of the population. And as a result, probably several thousand young Palestinian men will end up with permanent disabilities."

The M16 ammunition was at first mistaken by Palestinian doctors for the dumdum bullet, banned by the Hague Convention in 1899. "Many people think that it's a dumdum bullet, because if it does penetrate deep enough, it will break," says Martin Fackler, a former army surgeon who now runs ballistics tests for the U.S. Department of Defense. "Fragmentation does cause more wounds."

The weapon was introduced in 1963, as an experiment with the South Vietnamese army during the Kennedy administration. Soon reports came back from the field, recounted in a 1995 article in the International Review of the Red Cross, of a bullet that "does cartwheels as it penetrates living flesh, causing a highly lethal wound that looks like anything but a caliber .22 hole." By 1966, army doctors reported "gaping, devastated area[s] of soft tissue and even bone, often with loss of large amounts of tissue" and a disintegrating bullet. Seven years later, reports were circulating about wounds that looked like those caused by the expanding dumdum bullets, banned for causing "superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering."

Years of experiments revealed that the lightweight M16 bullet was prone to "yaw" and "tumble" more quickly after penetration—giving it greater potential to rip apart tissue by flying through the body sideways. The higher velocity—a trait now shared with other military rifles—also meant the bullet created a larger "temporary cavity," destroying solid, less flexible tissues like the spleen and liver—a pattern of injury borne out in Palestinian medical records. And the bullet fragmented more, causing multiple injuries from tiny pieces of lead, each on its own haywire path.

The old dumdum had been banned from the battlefield, but now some worried that a new bullet, with similar consequences, was taking its place. For years, disputes over what actually caused the wounds—the bullet's velocity, its tumbling, its fragmentation—slowed efforts to ban the ammunition. In 1995, the Swiss introduced an initiative to bring the M16 ammunition, along with others, under the umbrella of the Hague Convention. In his analysis of the Swiss effort in the International Review of the Red Cross, the humanitarian scholar Eric Prokosch urged states to "seize the opportunity" for the "adoption of the strongest possible ban on the modern dumdum bullets."

Some ballistics experts in Europe agree. Dr. Peter J.T. Knudsen, a Danish forensic pathologist who has written extensively on bullets and humanitarian law, argues that all M16 ammunition currently used by military forces should be banned, because they all tend to shatter. "Fragmentation adds unnecessary suffering and superfluous injury," he says.

Others caution that the M16 should not be singled out in what amounts to a political struggle rooted in the Cold War.

"The concept of 'inhumane' rifle bullets is a product of minds who know nothing of real war, and usually have ulterior—usually political—motives," says Fackler. "I have seen many soldiers who have had both legs and an arm blown off by explosive devices: land mines, artillery, etc. That is inhumane. There are no rifles on the battlefield that can disrupt anywhere near that much tissue. So does it make good sense to declare a rifle bullet inhumane and ignore the weapons that cause far more tissue disruption?"

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