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|Time does *little* justice of words for Palestine|
|12/11/00 at 23:23:53|
|Sunday, December 10, 2000 |
Fields Of Fire
BY MATT REES/GAZA CITY
1. the Boy and the Stone
Wael Imad wanted a one-way ticket to martyrdom. It was an early morning in late October, just as the latest Palestinian riots were gathering strength, when the lively 14-year-old entered his father's tiny used-furniture store in Jabalia, a ramshackle town in the north of the Gaza Strip. "I won't be able to come see you tomorrow, Daddy, so can you give me two days' allowance right now?" he asked. Mohammed Imad, unsuspecting, forked over the money. It was less than a dollar, the cost of a shared taxi to the Israeli outpost at Erez, where young Palestinians clashed daily with the guards. Wael left the store and met school friend Hussein Hamoudeh. "I need to go only one way," he told Hussein. "I'll come back in an ambulance."
The next day Wael raced to the front of the riot. It was midmorning on Oct. 22. As he and his friends hurled stones at the Israeli positions, the soldiers shot rubber-coated metal pellets. They zinged past the boys. When they hit, the pellets are supposed to leave a painful welt. But at ranges of less than 25 yds., they can be lethal. Friends recall how Wael sweated in the sun as he raced up the sandy bank to the first of several barbed-wire fences around the Israeli defenses. Hussein called to him to come back. He was too close. The Israelis would target him. Wael pushed ahead. "Martyrdom was calling him," his elder brother Fawzi says.
A rubber bullet thwacked into Wael's shin. Thin and small for his age, he reached down and rubbed the stinging wound with one hand. In his other hand he held a stone. As Wael straightened to throw it, another rubber bullet smacked into his brow between the eyebrows. He fell back, unconscious. Medics rushed the boy to Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. Hussein hurried to Wael's mother Mozna. "Wael has been shot," he told her. Mozna, 40, dashed to Shifa with deep foreboding. Said she: "The moment I heard he had been hit in the head, I knew he was dead."
Israel's army and its political leaders know that Palestinian casualties, particularly among children like Wael, serve only to inflame the Aqsa intifadeh further. The Israeli army maintains that it has refined its tactics in the past few years in an attempt to reduce the number killed at demonstrations. Yet a TIME investigation reveals that Israel's loosely drawn rules of engagement permit soldiers regularly to shoot at children. Hostile protesters younger than age 18, whether armed with guns or Molotov cocktails, even stones, are fair game when Israeli soldiers find their actions threatening. In many cases, Israeli attacks can be indiscriminate, such as machine-gun fire into crowded neighborhoods. Children are frequently victims in these cases as well. Medical officials estimate that 40% of the Palestinian dead in Gaza in the latest violence were under 18. (Israeli officials say they have no way of counting Palestinian casualties.) The U.S. and the U.N. have both accused Israel of using excessive force. International investigators headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell arrive in Israel this week to probe the sources of the 11 weeks of violence that has claimed a total of almost 300 lives, Israeli as well as Palestinian. Last week's fighting--10 were killed on Friday alone--was the most brutal in the past month.
Part of the problem in investigating and monitoring these deaths is that Israeli rules of engagement are interpreted subjectively by whichever soldier happens to be senior man on the scene. In some cases, that can leave the decision in the hands of a conscript just out of high school. Army regulations say that in regular situations, a soldier should shout a warning before shooting and that the first shots should be aimed for an attacker's legs. But anytime Palestinians open fire on Israelis, the warning stages are bypassed. Orders are to shoot to kill right away.
This story is not about the responsibility for the violence of the Aqsa intifadeh. If it were, Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority would surely bear at least an equal share with Israel's government. And Palestinian hard-liners have committed their own atrocities, beating two Israeli reservists to death and attacking an Israeli settler bus, killing two teachers and maiming several children. In the intense pressure of the urban battlefields, however, the high number of Palestinian deaths signals that Israel has not met its responsibility under the principles of the U.N. to rely on the "intentional lethal use of firearms only...when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life."
2. Children and Bullets
Wael Imad's stricken mother arrived at the chaotic main gate of Shifa Hospital. The yard in front of the hospital was crowded with bloodied young men and people searching frantically for injured relatives. Mozna Imad gave her name to an orderly. As soon as she spoke, she was surrounded by doctors and nurses. They carried her off to a single-story white structure in the corner of the yard. This was Shifa's morgue.
Doctors at Shifa had tried for an hour to save Wael, but it was hopeless. X rays of the boy's skull taken from the front show a perfectly circular entrance above the bridge of the nose. From the side, an X ray exposes an identical round shape resting against the back of the skull. The rubber bullet passed through the boy's forehead and brain. It smashed against the back of his skull, fracturing it, before coming to rest. At the morgue, Wael's X rays lie in a manila envelope, one of a pile, certifying the dead of the Aqsa intifadeh. There are 94 files recording the "martyrs" of the Gaza Strip. Here too is the rubber bullet that killed Wael. Its thin coating of black rubber was stripped away by the impact, leaving it a ridged, fawnish metal ball about half an inch in diameter and as heavy as a wristwatch. Before anyone invented high-tech machine guns and tank shells, this was the kind of bullet people used when they wanted to kill one another.
Mozna and Mohammed Imad buried Wael with a bloody gouge between his eyes where the bullet had entered. He still clung to the stone he had been about to throw. The surgeon at Shifa had been unable to free the rock from the rigor mortis in the boy's hand.
These are the deaths that keep Dr. Abdel Razq Masry awake each night. The only pathologist in the Gaza Strip, Masry records each of the intifadeh's victims. On Dec. 2, he went early in the morning to the morgue at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis. Laid out on the stainless-steel dissecting table was the small body of Mohammed Arja. Masry looked at the records sent up from Rafah, the town on the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt where Arja had been shot the previous day. The boy was 11. "I was angry as hell," Masry says. "I'd like to explode like one these damned bullets, I'm so angry."
Arja had been shot while he walked with his father to buy fruit, according to family members. The boy peered around a concrete barrier near the border fence and, as he turned, was hit by a large-caliber round through his neck. The exit wound tore out the boy's throat. Masry filled the throat with gauze, sewed the skin over it and put the child into one of the morgue's Japanese-made freezer trays at 3[Degrees]C. He pulled off the green mask he wears over his bushy gray beard as he works on the cadavers and went to his office to catch up on his death reports. He had a backlog.
3. Soldiers and the Tomb
The tall, crew-cut young man lifted a Maccabi beer bottle and bragged like a high school quarterback after a perfect touchdown pass. His friends sat around him, munching falafel at a simple restaurant in a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Their faces shone with admiration. The braggart pointed to his M-16A3. On the barrel of the assault rifle, with its special adjustments for use by a sniper, was a 2-in. silver cross etched into the black metal. "I got my first kill, and my commander put this on the gun for me," said the 20-year-old conscript.
He is a sniper in the Givati Brigade, serving in the Gaza Strip. The previous night the soldier had stood guard at Morag, a Jewish settlement near the Egyptian border. With his night-vision goggles, he noticed six Palestinians creeping toward the settlement. They dug a hole to hide a roadside bomb outside the settlement. Quietly he called his commander by radio and asked permission to strike. By the time he got the go-ahead, three of the Palestinians had left. Still, two were killed and one wounded. Then the company commander awarded the crosses. Amid the sniper's admiring friends was another sniper. He was quiet and sullen. His barrel bore no cross. "Not yet, but I'll get one," he muttered.
These snipers are the linchpin of Israel's military strategy in the Aqsa intifadeh. After the violent Hasmonean Tunnel riots of September 1996, started when Israel opened a tunnel near the golden Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the army decided to prepare for an even more terrible outbreak. Major General Giora Eiland, head of the army's operations division, was at the heart of this planning. A former commander of the Givati Brigade, Eiland insisted a few years back on buying the M-16A3 for the army, though most other generals didn't see the urgent need. Eiland believes it was a smart decision. Unlike the older model M-16s, the A3 is specifically designed as a sniper rifle.
The army's plan, developed in the past few years, was intended to keep control over Palestinian rioters without soldiers' shooting into crowds. Instead, Eiland's snipers would take positions above the rioters, picking off only the ringleaders and anyone carrying a gun or a Molotov cocktail. The strategy was a centerpiece of Operation Ebb and Flow, the army's code name for the low-level warfare it has waged around the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for more than two months. The accuracy of the snipers was supposed to reduce casualties. It was a logic that seemed clear after the scattershot exchanges of the tunnel riots killed at least 75 in a few days.
What went wrong? Eiland has one of the army's keenest analytical minds. He speaks almost entirely in neatly memorized lists, usually organized in fives. His clear, blue eyes don't blink as he runs through the army's mistakes. Foremost is Israel's failure to acquire nonlethal weapons for riot control. At riots on the edges of every Palestinian town, the army progresses quickly from tear gas to rubber-coated metal bullets to live ammunition--though Eiland says the last step comes only when a soldier feels his life is clearly in danger or when Palestinians open fire. But the army wants to have a nonlethal solution, a way to keep angry protesters frozen 200 to 300 yds. from soldiers.
Part of the problem is that the sniper fire and rubber-bullet fire aren't as precise as hoped. Ricochets and wind deflection can send sniper bullets off target, killing bystanders or child rioters instead of gunmen. Rubber bullets can be lethal when used at short range.
The army angrily rebuts accusations that it's going over the top. There have been more than 3,100 live-fire incidents in 11 weeks. Such attacks, Eiland says, demand a live-fire reaction--but not, he insists, a free-fire one. Eiland tells TIME that the army is preparing to court-martial a soldier and an officer for firing live rounds when there was no clear threat to their life. But restraint has been a tough sell in Israel. Posters and banners read: LET THE ARMY WIN. Even centrist politicians argue that the army's hands are tied and that its "restraint" costs Israeli lives.
Tell that to the residents of the Aida refugee camp. Last week they became the shooting range in a battle between Israeli soldiers manning the fortress around Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and Palestinian gunmen from the Tanzim militia. The battle was fought with machine guns and helicopter-launched missiles. But it also showed that the Israeli army believes it is fighting with one hand tied behind its back.
Late last Monday, Lieut. Colonel Yossi Mor peered through the 3-in.-thick bulletproof glass on the guard tower at Rachel's Tomb. The Jewish holy site had been under fire from three sides for four hours. Bullets slammed into the glass, bludgeoning it with starfish cracks, like ice on a pond. Mor spotted a muzzle flash from the Tanzim next to Aida's main mosque, 300 yds. away. "They want to make me hit the mosque and get the people more fired up," he thought at the time. Mor picked up the red phone that is on a direct line to his commander, Colonel Marcel Aviv. They spoke quickly, then Aviv listened in as Mor guided a helicopter into place above the target. At Mor's command, five missiles hammered into the refugee camp. Two hit the upper floors of the rough, cinder-block home of Omar Da'ajna. The Palestinian cook later said his children "shook like a tree in a storm" as they sheltered on the ground floor.
By midnight, the Palestinian gunmen stopped shooting. Mor, dour and darkly bearded, watched them pull back from the edge of the graveyard behind the tomb. They had got to within 40 yds. of his men. Mor picked up the red phone and called Aviv again, asking permission to take a squad into Aida to go after the shooters. Aviv was willing to hit the Palestinians hard. He had ordered a grenade machine gun to fire on the Palestinian town of Beit Jala that night, after Tanzim fighters opened up on the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo. But this was too much. Aida is in Area A, under the complete control of Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Sending soldiers in there would be dynamite. "No, Yossi," he said to Mor, "there are orders on this. We'll have to be patient."
4. Gunmen and Thunder
The Tanzim gunmen crouched at the side of the house. They aimed their Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles at the hilltop, where the edge of the Jewish settlement of Bracha glowed faintly through the trees. The bullets whizzed harmlessly through the night. At a range of half a mile, and fired by inexpert marksmen, they were no great threat. Minutes later, the Tanzim cleared out, leaving the residents of this small street on the edge of Nablus to face Israel's retribution. A heavy machine gun ripped through the metal gate that had provided the gunmen with their cover. Across the street, a tank shell thundered into Faisal Malawani's storeroom. The next morning, the charred concrete was still too hot to touch.
Israel's response to Palestinian riots has drawn the criticism of human-rights organizations. But also sometimes problematic is Israel's targeting of Palestinian gunmen who shoot from populated areas. Few argue that the Israelis should not shoot back when they come under fire. Israeli officers assert that they must respond to such attacks with considerable and accurate force. Palestinian sources concede that the Tanzim often fire from built-up areas, hoping Israel will strike back with superior firepower, angering ordinary Palestinians and pushing both Palestinians and Israelis into a yet more radical situation. The imbalance of firepower has inflamed Palestinians almost as much as the death of child rioters.
To try to deal with this, Israel is constantly refining its rules of engagement. It reviewed its tactics in the 1996 violence thoroughly. In Gilo, Colonel Aviv sent highly visible tanks to shoot at gunmen in Beit Jalla in order to boost residents' morale. But tanks are at their best firing over longer ranges and could take out an entire family if their aim is slightly off. Aviv moved in detachments of large-caliber machine-guns and grenade guns that do the job with less likelihood of a big and costly mistake. Still, as recently as last Friday, Israeli tanks were firing regularly at armed Palestinians, a sign also of the fact that the battle zone is becoming more lethal every week.
With Adil Salman's sons, the tanks made no mistake. Salman picks through the destruction of the old stone house near Nablus where his sons Nahid and Sami died last month. Adil is 67. He stoops shakily to pick through the rubble around the shallow indentation in the ground, a yard across, where the tank shell landed. Rearranging his white kaffiyeh with one hand, he reaches out for a piece of silvery metal. It is a foot long with 10 parallel grooves near one end, part of the shell that killed his sons. Nahid and Sami Salman were Tanzim gunmen. They went to this building on the edge of the village of Kafr Khalil to shoot at the side of the main road into Nablus. The tank's return fire was a direct hit. Adil straightens up and leans against the remains of the doorway. "We are fighting them with stones and old guns. They are fighting with planes, tanks and missiles," he says. "But whatever power they have, we will win, with God's help." As he speaks, the old man notices that where his hand rests on the stone wall, there is a long, splattered bloodstain. He stares at it and is quiet.
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