Shoot to Maim

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

Adil, 31, was shot during what he says was a peaceful protest following a funeral of a man killed in the clashes. A bullet splintered a bone in his left leg. Adil says he saw fragments of the limb in the street before he passed out.

Morad, 15, breathes slowly, with the aid of a respirator. The machine clicks, his chest fills with air, it clicks again, his chest falls. His eyelids are purple and swollen, his head wrapped in a bandage. A heart monitor is connected to his chest. A bullet is lodged in his brain.

Sharif Darwish, 34, sits sideways on his bed at Hussein Hospital in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. A heavy cast holds in place the shattered bones of his foot. "The guy who carried me to the ambulance was killed," he says. Darwish stares ahead at nothing. A few weeks before, a rocket hit his Beit Jala house, landing next to his bedroom. "I had just woken up to get some breakfast," he says.

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

Palestinians, almost without exception, trace the beginnings of the Al Aqsa Intifada to the September 28 arrival of Ariel Sharon at Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary, or Temple Mount to the Israelis), backed by a thousand Israeli troops and riot police. The high casualties, they say, began as part of a brute-force strategy by then prime minister Ehud Barak to try to achieve a swift end to the conflict.

"These are good tactics if one wants to wipe out an enemy," said Dr. Stephen Males, a former senior police officer in the U.K. who accompanied an Amnesty International fact-finding team to the region. "They are not policing."

Israelis say Sharon's visit was merely an excuse to adopt a carefully orchestrated intifada planned and backed by the Palestinian Authority. "We are talking about a very organized and very planned violent strategy chosen by the P.A. to try to achieve political goals from the very beginning," says Major Rafowicz. "To try more quickly to achieve political objectives, mainly, we believe, to improve the Palestinian position abroad by reinforcing the image of the underdog of the big, bad Israeli.

"We have been dragged into this situation not by our own policy. We look very bad on TV because we are a regular army facing a so-called popular demonstration. But on the other side it is a strategy."

Publicly, IDF officials keep to their explanations of restraint in the face of violence. General Eiland, in his letter to the Israeli human rights lawyer, wrote: "[W]ithin a rioting crowd of unarmed residents, there are also those . . . who are armed. You cannot demand of a soldier to shoot only when he is convinced there is no danger for whoever stands next to a Palestinian opening fire at him."

Privately, some IDF soldiers and generals have been telling Israeli journalists something else. "I don't know if the IDF takes revenge," an IDF sniper told the newspaper Ha'aretz. "But every time, after there's a serious incident, it's political, you can feel it. You as a soldier know that if in the papers today they have written about a lot of things that happened to the IDF, then they will allow you to shoot more."

The sniper told Ha'aretz that soldiers are allowed to shoot at Palestinians who pose a potential threat, as long as they appear to be over the age of 12. "Twelve and up is allowed," said the sniper. A senior IDF officer told another Ha'aretz reporter: "Nobody can convince me we didn't needlessly kill dozens of children."

The high casualties sustained by Palestinians during the first two months of clashes, and the international condemnation of Israel that followed, have prompted a shift in tactics on both sides. Casualties began to decline in December, says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. He calls that decrease "a sign of fewer massive demonstrations at Israeli army checkpoints."

This is not an indication of renewed faith in the prospects for peace. Palestinians, says Khatib, have lost faith in an Oslo process that they no longer believe can deliver on basic issues of sovereignty, Jerusalem, and the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland. Increasingly, says Khatib, Palestinians are equating discussions of peace and security with the continuation of the Israeli occupation. A recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center shows two-thirds of Palestinians support the most extreme measures, including suicide bombings, "under the current political conditions." The poll also indicates 70 percent of Palestinians support continuing the Al Aqsa Intifada.

In the hospital interviews in Jordan and the West Bank, young men appeared eager to again pick up the stone.

Mohammed Mahmoud Abu Fodeh, at 22, is already a veteran of the Palestinian struggle. Now, he lies in a bed in Amman's Specialty Physiotherapy Hospital, after being shot twice while protesting at the checkpoint between Jericho and the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. One high-velocity bullet lodged in his left shoulder. Another pierced a lung. His friends thought he was dead, until they saw him crawling toward the ambulance. The bullet from his chest rests in a jar beside his bed, "for memory and for evidence," he says.

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