Palestinian medical experts have been reporting unusually large and destructive bullet wounds among protesters in Gaza, leading to claims that IDF snipers have been using prohibited, ‘expanding’ ammunition. There could be another explanation.
By Avihai Stollar
Palestinian and international medical experts and media outlets have been making an alarming claim over the past several months: that Israeli snipers may be targeting demonstrators in Gaza with expanding, or exploding bullets.
Doctors Without Borders stated that many of the wounds the organization encountered were located in the lower limbs and characterized by large exit wounds, in some cases as big as a fist.
Amnesty International reported that military experts and forensic pathologists, who assessed photos of the wounds from the past several weeks, determined that some of them appeared to be caused by a Tavor assault rifle firing a 5.56 millimeter bullet; others appeared to be caused by a 7.62 caliber M24 sniper rifle using “ hunting ammunition, which expand and mushroom inside the body.”
These reports led to the claim, published in several media outlets, that Israeli snipers were firing “dum dum” expanding bullets. Under International Humanitarian Law, ammunition that “expands or flattens inside the body” is expressly prohibited. Israel has accepted that prohibition, and includes it in its Manual on the Laws of War, according to the ICRC.
To assess the apparent contradiction between the army’s field manual and the reports from Palestinian hospitals, and to provide another possible explanation for the severe gunshot wounds, it is worth examining exactly which weapons and ammunition the IDF used against the protesters.
Photos from a variety of sources over the past several weeks show the IDF using two kinds of sniper rifles against the Great Return March participants — the SR25 and the M24. The Tavor assault rifle, carried by many IDF soldiers, also appears to have been used against the demonstrators. Riflemen and designated marksmen armed with Tavors appear in numerous photos from the past several weeks, and it can’t be ruled out that in some instances they also fired toward the demonstrators.
The M24 sniper rifle, made by Remington, has long been used by the IDF and is issued to the IDF’s infantry battalions as well as other units. The 7.62×51 mm. rifle has an effective range of 800 meters. There are two types of standard ammunition used with this rifle: M118 and M852, both of which are “Open Tip Match” type bullets (OTM). These bullets have sometimes been marketed as “hollow point” bullets, a designation generally reserved for the prohibited expanding ammunition.
However, Open Tip is a deceptive name which actually describes the shape of the bullet, which has a perforated tip. It does not describe the behavior of the bullet, which is not designed to expand or break apart. The OTM design improves the accuracy of the bullet and enables it to maintain a high speed in the air for a longer distance. According to a legal opinion published by the U.S. Army, which uses the same ammunition, the bullet does not expand or easily break apart upon impact and, therefore, does not violate the international prohibition on expanding ammunition.
In practice, wounds caused by 7.62 millimeter OTM bullets do not differ from wounds from standard “Full Metal Jacket” (FMJ) bullets with a similar caliber, according to the U.S. Army’s findings.
Another sniper rifle that appears in pictures from the protests over the past weeks is the SR 25, made by Knight’s Armament Company. This rifle came into use in recent years and is used primarily by Israeli special forces and reconnaissance units. The rifle is a NATO 7.62×51 caliber that fires more rapidly than the M24. It uses ammunition similar to the M24 and, it seems, is also used with sniper rounds made by Israeli Military Industries, which are also OTM.
Other sniper rifles intended for use against more distant targets are also part of the IDF’s arsenal. The “Barak” rifle and the special forces’ “Dan” rifle use an even larger caliber ammunition — 0.388 inches — and have an effective range of up to 1,200 meters. Though “Barak” rifles can be found among infantry units, including those deployed around the Gaza Strip, it is not known whether this rifle was used during the protests over the course of the past weeks. The ammunition used with these rifles, known as “Lapua Magnum” shells, weigh 250 grain and are intended for long-range use.
Five years ago, the IDF switched its supplier of ammunition used with the “Barak.” Today it appears that Israel Military Industries, recognized by the Israeli Defense Ministry as the main IDF light munitions supplier, supplies ammunition for the “Barak.” Two years ago, Israel Military Industries developed a “Lapua Magnum” .338 inch caliber bullet “at the IDF’s request…so that the bullet would be available in Israel for the army’s demands…it [the bullet] is intended for existing IDF sniper rifles.” According to a brochure published by Israel Military Industries, this bullet, too, is “Open Tip Match.”
The answer to the question of whether there is any correlation between “Open Tip Match” bullets and the severe wounds suffered by Palestinian demonstrators depends entirely on the assumption that Israeli snipers are using standard ammunition. It is possible that other ammunition types have been used — at least by some of the sniper teams — although no published information confirms this and the army has denied it. As for the standard ammunition, it does not appear that their use violates the international prohibition on expanding bullets.
However, it is also difficult to assess the effect of the OTM bullets on the type and severity of the wounds. On the one hand, the U.S. Army’s opinion is that the perforated-tip bullet does not influence the nature of the wound. On the other hand, bullets of this type are intended to wound a target with much greater speed and force to improve their “stopping power.”
The impact of a bullet with such attributes can explain, at least partially, the severe wounds suffered by the demonstrators. IMI, for instance, which produces several versions of “Open Tip Match” bullet under the name “Razor Core,” claims that the 5.56 caliber bullet intended for use in assault rifles, like the Tavor, offers “higher accuracy and greater stopping power” and “significantly higher lethality.” From this we can assume that these characteristics, which also describe the OTM bullets used in sniper rifles, contributed to the increased severity of the wounds suffered by Palestinian demonstrators shot by Israeli soldiers.
An additional factor that could explain the nature of the injuries has to do with the nature of the standard FMJ bullet. Any FMJ bullet that hits its intended target within a 250-meter range is liable to break apart upon impact. That applies to all of the bullets used during the past several weeks — both those used by snipers and those used by riflemen. The high number of casualties (123 killed and thousands injured by live fire) might explain the exceptionally high number of severe wounds. When there is such a high number of casualties from live fire, the number of exceptionally severe wounds will be similarly high.
Another possible explanation arises from the 2000 Or Commission’s report, which revealed police sniper tactics meant to increase the probability of impact and injury. Former snipers confirmed to the commission that the norm, also true in IDF units, is for more than one sniper to fire at the same target. It is worth investigating whether this practice was carried out over the past several weeks. It is possible that in certain cases in which a protester was reported as being wounded by a single bullet in both his legs, the protester was in fact wounded by two bullets fired simultaneously.
The final point — and in my opinion the central one when it comes to assessing the wounds — deals with the range from which the soldiers opened fire. If the army’s claim that most of the demonstrators were shot when they attempted to damage or cross the separation fence is accurate, then the distance between the IDF soldiers and the demonstrators was, in many instances, tens of meters. At this distance, there are alternatives to sniper rifles, such as the Ruger rifle, which causes less severe wounds.
Moreover, the bulk of the demonstrations took place at a distance of between 100 and 300 meters from the separation fence, where the snipers were positioned — hundreds of meters less than the effective ranges of the sniper rifles used by the IDF. The use of sniper rifles against closer targets increases accuracy and decreases the chances of wounding an unintended target, but it also leads to far more severe wounds due to the greater speed and force of the bullet. It therefore appears that the IDF’s use of sniper rifles during the Great Return March protests, along with bullets intended to be even more deadly and at a range shorter than the munitions are intended, which led to the large number of severe wounds among Palestinian demonstrators.
Avihai Stollar is an army and human rights researcher, and former director of the Testimonies and Research Department of Breaking the Silence.