Shoot to Maim

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

An old woman in a white headscarf and a black Palestinian dress has been listening to Bilali's story. She begins to yell and wave her arms. "Look at him! He's young, and he's already in a wheelchair. Haram! Haram! This is a crime! This is a crime! We're using stones. They're using bombs and rockets and tanks!" She points to the rehab center's second floor. "My son is upstairs. A woman pours out the blood of her heart to raise a son through poverty and hardship, and now he gets shot."

Dr. Hanania says he is not so worried about the hundreds of patients his staff is contending with now. "The problem is what will be coming to the center in the coming days," he says. Because the Israelis are limiting freedom of movement between West Bank towns and villages, the doctor says, it's impossible to estimate how many young men will need rehabilitative care. But when the roads open, Dr. Hanania expects a flood. "There are reports that there are 25 to 30 percent of the injured in need of rehabilitative care"—several thousand people, given the current casualty figures. "If that's true, it's a national disaster."

Across the Jordan River in Amman, Dr. Khoury pulls back Fouad Mahed's bedcovers to reveal a bandaged stump—the remnants of his right leg. After he was hit, doctors in Gaza pumped 17 pints of blood into Mahed, to replace that which was pouring from the wound. Complications from a skin graft forced doctors to send him to Amman, where he could get treatment unavailable in the Gaza hospitals.

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

Khoury has operated on hundreds of injured Palestinians dating back to the first intifada. But never has he seen so many severely wounded. He puts his hand on Mahed's shoulder. "This guy is amazing," says Dr. Khoury. "After all he's been through"—the shooting, the amputation, the formation of ulcers that almost killed him—"the smile never leaves his face."

Mahed was shot in Gaza just after returning home from an afternoon of prayer. Israeli shells began to fall in his Khan Yunis neighborhood, 100 meters from an Israeli military installation. When parts of his ceiling caved in, Mahed, who says he has never taken part in the protests, decided to bring his wife and daughter to his brother's house. Just outside his door, he was hit.

The question of whether lethal force is justified rests in determining whether police or security forces are acting to defend themselves or others against the threat of imminent death or serious injury. Israeli officials say they are shooting in response to shooting. "The Palestinians are not only throwing stones like 10 years ago," says Major Rafowicz of the IDF, "but also using rifles, Kalashnikovs, within the demonstration."

Even in such cases, Israeli forces, supported by tanks and high-caliber fire from helicopter gunships, have often overwhelmed the Palestinian side. "Usually the Palestinian fire is pathetic," an anonymous IDF sniper told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "The shooting is totally pathetic. . . . You know that most of it will be into the air."

Despite headlines describing a conflict between two armies—and despite repeated calls from Israeli and U.S. officials that it is the Palestinians who must stop the violence—approximately 90 percent of the dead and wounded have been Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. The IDF's own figures indicate that in three-quarters of the clashes, there was no Palestinian gunfire. "Israel's policy is directed in large part against the Palestinian civilian population, which is not firing at Israeli civilians or IDF soldiers and is the primary victim of Israel's human rights violations," says a recent report by B'tselem, the respected Israeli human rights group.

Of the dozens of patients interviewed in the 14 hospitals, all but four said they were throwing stones, coming to the aid of another wounded person, or simply walking past a flashpoint when they were shot. One patient admitted to firing a gun when hit; three others said they were throwing Molotov cocktails.

"Molotov cocktails can kill," says Major Rafowicz.

According to human rights groups, even the gasoline bombs pose little threat to soldiers equipped for riot control. "The Israeli security services were almost invariably well-defended, located at a distance from demonstrators in good cover, in blockhouses, behind wire or well-protected by riot shields," Amnesty International concluded in its October report. "Certainly, stones—or even petrol bombs—cannot be said to have endangered the lives of Israeli security services in any of the instances examined by Amnesty International."

The Palestinians, by comparison, have been easy targets.

Shadi Masri, 24, was shot three times in the abdomen on November 16, after throwing Molotov cocktails at a tank. Beside his bed at Amman Surgical Hospital stands a Palestinian flag. On the wall hangs a poster of Yasir Arafat, superimposed over a crowd of protesters. Masri doesn't know how long it took him to get to Jordan, but says he does remember Israeli soldiers taking his picture and punching him in the ambulance. It was the third time he was injured during this intifada.

Mohammed Bassam, 15, was shot while protesting on November 26 in Birzeit, near Ramallah. A high-velocity bullet went through his shin, crushing the bone. Surgeons inserted steel rods through his leg and an "external fixator" resembling perforated file-cabinet rods. He uses a walker to get around his hospital room.

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