Despite being illegal as a crowd control weapon, eyewitness accounts and a new report by B’Tselem document the Israeli military’s increased use of 0.22 caliber live bullets against Palestinians at West Bank protests and clashes.
Photos by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler and Oren Ziv/Activestills.org
Text by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler
Two years ago this week, 15-year-old Palestinian Salih al-Amarin was shot in the head by Israeli forces with live ammunition. He died several days later. Al-Amarin, a resident of Azza Refugee Camp in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, was taking part in clashes with Israeli forces stationed on the separation wall that cuts deep into Bethlehem.
“Those soldiers sitting in their towers behind the wall, are they really in danger?” Bethlehem governor Abdi Fatah Hamayel told Sky News at the time. “There is no excuse to shoot the kids with live bullets.”
According to the same report, this and other killings at the time “prompted then Israel’s (then) commander of operations in the West Bank, Brig.-Gen. Hagai Mordechai, to call for an immediate review of its rules of engagement.”
But in the months and years that followed, use of live ammunition on the streets of Bethlehem and throughout the West Bank only increased — typically 0.22 caliber bullets known as “two-twos” fired from an integrally suppressed (silenced) 10/22 Ruger rifle.
Why the Israeli military uses a silenced rifle as a crowd control weapon is puzzling and counter-intuitive. But as eyewitness to several incidents of their use on the streets of Bethlehem, I can testify that there is absolutely no audible gunshot. As one advertiser of such weapons accurately boasts, from the perspective of the shooter, “the only noise you will hear is the firing pin hitting and then, the ‘smack’ on the target.”
From the perspective of those on the receiving end, the only warnings that these shots have been fired are the sound of the bullet whizzing by and hitting the ground — or the shouts of people hit crying out for help.
Following the shooting and serious injury of 13-year-old Mohammad al-Kurdi one month after al-Amarin’s death, Mairav Zonszein reported that such bullets had been “banned by the Israeli Military Advocate General in 2001 as a means for crowd dispersal.” A military spokesperson claimed that in al-Kurdi’s case they were fired “at the Palestinian ‘main inciters’ only after makeshift grenades’ were hurled at them; standard IDF rules of engagement.” Zonszein cited another report claiming that the bullets were “used as a ‘last resort,’ authorized by a high-ranking officer on the scene.”
As an eyewitness to this incident as well, I can state with confidence that no “makeshift grenades” or any other weapon was used that endangered soldiers’ lives. Ten minutes after al-Kurdi was shot, civilian visitors to Rachel’s Tomb could be seen watching the clashes from inside the walled compound — suggesting that neither they nor the soldiers there to protect them seemed to feel that they were in any immediate mortal danger.
In another incident later that year, a Palestinian youth was shot through both legs above the knee. In that shooting, as I reported at the time:
Israeli forces used no tear gas or rubber-coated bullets. Live ammunition was the first response and not a “last resort.” These latest incidents seem to create an emerging pattern that the use of such weapons for crowd-dispersal are not the exception, but are becoming a matter of routine.
In all of these cases, the shots were fired by soldiers from protected positions atop the separation wall that cuts into Bethlehem in order to encircle the Rachel’s Tomb holy site. The wall in this area is a frequent flashpoint because of the Israeli presence in the middle of a major Palestinian community, and clashes often erupt in response to Israeli actions elsewhere — such as last summer’s offensive against the Gaza Strip, when a teenage friend of mine was shot and injured during such protests.
Arutz Sheva reported last spring that army was considering building a roof over the site to protect visitors. If defense of soldiers and civilians was the actual rationale for firing live ammunition at children, it remains baffling why much simpler methods of protection haven’t been implemented while potentially lethal force remains anything but the last resort.
Rather than preventing injury to Israeli soldiers or civilians, this use of live fire — and other potentially lethal crowd control weapons — seems largely punitive. Amnesty International’s term for this military mentality: “trigger-happy”.
The same day as the shooting of al-Kurdi, Israeli forces fired a shot into the wall atop the building where I and several other observers were watching and photographing the clashes — far away from the action itself. The bullet struck the wall near us — at body level.
In a similar incident more than a year later, a sniper’s bullet struck the other side of a garbage bin behind which I and another photographer were standing — on the opposite side of the street from stone-throwers. One can only speculate as to the purpose of these apparent warning shots.
Fast-forward to this week, and coinciding with the second anniversary of the shooting of al-Amarin, Israeli human rights group B’Telem released a report on the increased use of 0.22 caliber bullets:
The firing of this ammunition is an almost weekly occurrence in the West Bank in sites of protests and clashes. Most of those injured have been young Palestinians, including minors. Yet, in the last two months, one Palestinian woman, at least three photographers, and a foreign national who was taking part in a demonstration were also hit by these bullets. … In these instances shots were fired contrary to the strict open-fire regulations that, as a rule, prohibit live fire against stone-throwers. The only exception to this rule cited in the regulations is immediate, mortal danger. Moreover, in several cases, the soldiers intentionally engaged with stone-throwers in order to fire 0.22 bullets at them.
B’Tselem details an incident in Nabi Saleh where some 30 minutes after a demonstration was essentially over, an army sniper entered the built-up area of the village, “for no apparent reason other than provoking the youths into renewing the stone-throwing, as indeed then transpired. The sniper responded by shooting at a Palestinian youth, who was hit in the thigh.”
The report also cites recent comments by the current military commander in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Tamir Yadai, who boasted in a meeting with Israeli settlers:
I won’t say we changed the open-fire regulations, but we’ve taken a slightly [pause] tougher approach with people around here. In places where we used to fire tear-gas or rubber[-coated metal bullets], we now fire Ruger bullets and sometimes live bullets. If I remember the figures correctly, we’re at around 25 people hit here in the last three weeks. That’s a relatively high figure on any scale.
B’Tselem’s report confirms the escalation of the troubling trend that I witnessed on the streets of Bethlehem. Whatever the actual rules of engagement, Israeli military forces on the ground seem to have little trouble finding justifications for their use of potentially lethal force. Nor does there seem to be any effort by the military to bring to justice those who are using such weapons illegally.