Shoot to Maim

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

Defenders of the M16 say attempts to ban the rifle's 5.56mm ammunition were started by the Soviet Union, envious of the U.S. and NATO's lightweight, efficient military rifle. That claim is disputed, but the issue remains politically charged. After years of testing and repeated international meetings, some humanitarian and ballistics experts would like to raise the issue of high-velocity, fragmenting bullets at an international conference in Europe later this year. They say it's time that weapons causing the same degree of unnecessary harm as the old dumdum bullets be placed under the same kind of ban.

Chances for that appear slim. After floating a proposal that might have put restrictions on the M16 ammunition, potentially forcing NATO countries to develop entirely new, nonfragmenting ammunition, the Swiss government now appears ready to offer a more modest plan.

"Can you imagine if there were an attempt to ban 5.56[mm] bullets?" asks Denmark's Dr. Knudsen. "Think about all the countries that would have to discard all their M16 ammunition." Even if they replaced it with the nonfragmenting bullets being tested, there's still a stark political reality: None of the "safer" bullets are manufactured in America. "Imagine if you told the U.S. Army they would have to buy all their bullets from a foreign country," Knudsen says. "Or how about the senator in whose state the bullets are made? There's too much money involved."

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

As humanitarians debate whether to consider a ban on ammunition they believe excessively harmful to soldiers, the IDF continues to use the weapons on unarmed Palestinian civilians. Live ammunition has been used "routinely in an illegal and indiscriminate manner," a Human Rights Watch report said of the IDF, "resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians."

Nasri Showkat lies in his bed in Jordan Hospital, waiting for doctors to extract the last bullet fragments, lodged near his left eye socket. The graying edges of his short black hair and his thin silver-frame glasses give a learned look to Showkat, a history major who was due to graduate this year. On October 25, he joined hundreds of demonstrators in Ramallah. They marched to the Israeli-guarded checkpoint and threw their stones. When Showkat saw his friend shot in the head, he rushed out and was himself shot, he says, by a sniper. The bullet hit Showkat in the upper lip, exploding into seven fragments inside his head. He lost the teeth on one side of his mouth, which he covers with one hand when he tries to speak.

Amjad, 22, was hit in the head in the West Bank town of Jenin. X rays show a bullet lodged in the back of his skull. His arms are listless and floppy like a rag doll's, and the room smells like excrement.

Mohammad Nada, 17 years old, was shot twice by an Israeli sniper on December 1 while clearing debris in front of his sister's house, close to the site of daily clashes in Ramallah. The second shot went into his left buttock and hit his sciatic nerve, which controls the up-and-down movement of the foot. X rays show evidence of a high-velocity bullet, which fragmented into hundreds of pieces. Doctors say he needs a graft to repair the nerve.

Isa Abu Abdullah, 19, was confronted by Israeli tanks in Gaza on the third morning of Ramadan, November 29. He threw stones, then was hit by a bullet in the left calf. While down, he was hit by six more bullets: three in his left thigh, two in his right thigh, and one in his right arm. Doctors at the Shifa Hospital in Gaza moved part of an artery from his right leg to his left, then sent him to Amman for further surgery.

Mahmoud Odeili, 23, lives in Gaza, near the Israeli settlement of Gush Katif, a constant flashpoint. Now he fills a bed in Amman's Shmesani Hospital. The unemployed father of two barely opens his mouth when he speaks, because of the high-velocity bullet that smashed his jaw before exiting through the back of his neck. He says he and his friends ran out to throw stones at an Israeli demolition crew sent to destroy their houses. He was shot by a soldier in a tank 100 meters away. "They shot us and kept going," he says.

"How many patients do you want to see?" asks Dr. Ghazi Hanania of the Abu Raya Rehabilitation Centre in Ramallah. The doctor, in a gray charcoal suit with a red scarf, looks across his desk with deeply tired eyes. "You can talk to 2000 patients if you want to."

Outside the center, four young men in wheelchairs gather at the curb, soaking up the December sun. Nasser Bilali, his leg in a heavy cast, says he was just walking home when clashes broke out. In the confusion he was hit by a high-velocity bullet that shredded several bones in his left foot. He's not sure if he'll walk again without crutches; it will be months before he can even think about going back to work. "I can't consider myself a hero," says Bilali. "Because I didn't even throw stones. I was just walking and I got shot."

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