The Impact of the Conflict on Children
Don’t shoot till you can see
they’re over the age of 12
He doesn’t know how many children have been killed in the violence of the past two months, but he’s sure that the army ‘shoots everyone who needs to be shot.’ A day in the life of an IDF sharpshooter.
You can find soldiers like him at any military post in the West Bank or Gaza. But we met in an Israeli city. He is the same age as many of those who are confronting the Israel Defense Forces. He is smiling, shy but frank, and tends to favor subjects in the humanities. If he were out of uniform, you might think he was on his way to India or South America.
“Every day, the orders for opening fire change, sometimes several times a day,” he says.
“Every day before we go out they define the principles for opening fire. This also changes from place to place.
“There are places where the orders are more lenient than in other places. The orders, wisely, are that we should be very selective, very precise. Or it depends on the day. After the lynch, for example, the orders for opening fire were far more lenient than they had been the day before. But usually the instructions for opening fire are not permissive at all. There seems to be an impression that I am eager to open fire, but on the contrary, I’m glad that the orders for opening fire are moderate.”
How do you know they are moderate? What are the criteria?
“Sharpshooters are given precise orders to open fire. On people who throw firebombs, you aim for the legs, but people who pull out weapons can be shot straight on.”
They gave you video cameras.
“They call this a documentation kit, and see to it that every person killed is photographed. And then it will be confirmed that he was not under the age of 12, that he was holding a gun.”
That is, the Palestinian figures are false?
“It’s hard for me to determine, but I can remember a few cases when we definitely shot at adults and we prayed that the soldier in charge of the kit had filmed it because there they will accuse us of having killed a child. It could be that there are mistaken statements, there are also errors, and a child was killed because of a soldier’s stupid mistake. And I haven’t heard them publicizing this (in the Israel Defense Forces) afterward.”
What is a mistake? That the rifle moved?
“For example, someone says to the other forces that he has identified someone suspicious — we identified a boy who is making strange movements, maybe he wanted to pick up a stone or something like that. The one who identified him strongly requests permission to fire in his direction. The forward command, the brigade commander, definitely does not allow it, and he continues to plead, and so the commander says, if you think he is very suspicious, fire a warning shot, and a warning shot is 20 meters, and fire into an open area. From the debriefing afterward, it turns out that that he had seen the person’s head through a telescope, took five meters, and the wind ... The rifle wasn’t aimed so precisely, and he hit him right in the head.”
Do you know how many children have been killed?
“No. If we ask, they tell. And there are places where they provide the figures without us asking.”
And do you know how many dead there have been altogether?
“No, I’ve heard various numbers in different places, but I wouldn’t sign on them.”
“I can’t estimate at all the number of children who have been killed.”
How do you explain that people have been hit in the upper part of the body? Do you need skill to be on target?
“The IDF shoots very selectively, shoots everyone who needs to be shot — or at least in 90 percent of the cases. That is to say, everyone who throws a Molotov cocktail and can kill someone else — so if he’s holding it [the firebomb], we shoot him. We don’t fire at him with an automatic weapon, but we shoot at him with a sharpshooter’s rifle, and in most cases these aren’t long ranges. A sharpshooter, from 200 meters, has no problem hitting the head and certainly if he aims at the head — the upper part of the body — there’s no problem. A firebomb endangers the soldiers in the Jeeps, who are 25 meters away.
“A sharpshooter is like a pilot, his work is very clean, certain, but there are also other sharpshooters, and then the work is very dangerous. The real danger for a sharpshooter is another sharpshooter, a Palestinian. And they have them. There are even some who are not bad. If you have the weapons and the sights, unfortunately you have a 50 percent chance of hitting the target. In this war the ranges are short. A sharpshooter is measured at 500-600 meters, then he’s a real sharpshooter.”
And when do you begin to get skillful?
“We as sharpshooters have taken good care to look, even though they haven’t told us to, for places where there could be other sharpshooters — houses, windows that catch someone’s reflection — because this is what is really scary. What is also scary are stray bullets. Their firing is not aimed. Especially as the IDF is very afraid that [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat will decide to deploy the Palestinian police. At the moment, they are acting of their own accord sometimes, but if he decides, the IDF will have more of a problem, because they are simply better trained. The Tanzim are untrained guys, no one has helped [train] them and sometimes when they say on the radio ‘exchanges of fire,’ we laugh. This is not Hezbollah that the IDF trained in the past, this is not Hamas that Iran has trained and not even Palestinian policemen who received full backing for their training. The IDF has watched them train and knows how they practice. They know how to shoot precisely and they have precise and reliable weapons. This is what the IDF fears.
“I have to say that the IDF was ready in advance for these disturbances. I remember that about two months before it all began, I really wasn’t thinking in this direction. I was pleased and optimistic that [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak had been elected, and that the peace process was moving forward. We had a discussion with commanders, and they said that unfortunately the IDF is expecting that there will be disturbances. Then, they said it was because of Arafat’s needs in advance of establishing a state. They told us that Arafat had learned from Israel that establishing a state by force and with many dead is a positive thing; it strengthens the leader, a bit, but they said that mainly it gives values to the inhabitants, esprit de corps, like we have.
“This is also the case for the State of Israel, after three wars, when seven armies attacked us. They expected that there would be something, only they didn’t know whether it would be a war, disturbances, demonstrations. They were hoping it would be demonstrations, but prepared for the possibility that it would be a war. There are contingency plans that set out in astonishing detail what happens if they decide, and if they decide then within a few days we occupy the territories we have given to them and set up a military government like in the 1950s, something like that. Of course this is terrible. Even I, a simple soldier, have heard about these plans.”
Do you remember how it all started?
“My father took the trouble to get very angry at [Likud MK Ariel] Sharon when he visited there [the Temple Mount]. Then I thought this was an ordinary event.”
Didn’t you know that on the Friday, four people were killed at the mosque and another two near Mukassad Hospital?
“I didn’t know, no. I think that after the first day, you become a soldier. On the first and last day (of service) you go back to being yourself again, to your political ideas, and afterward you try to cut yourself off. In my opinion, most of the Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders are not important. But at the moment you are a defender, and one hundred percent a defender, and the people are very important to you. We as Israelis have to decide on a clear line, because if we decide that we aren’t giving back the settlements then we, the soldiers, will find it much easier to fight. At the moment I am sure that Arafat also knows this.”
Someone who is about to throw a firebomb is in motion all the time, so how do you aim when someone is moving all the time?
“It depends on the distances. At 100 meters it’s not hard, and we also practice this, and there are also easy targets, it all depends on the distance. At 500 meters you already know not to aim at the head but at the middle of the body, because it’s easier, and you also have to take into account the wind, and the deviation, but at 100 meters it’s almost sterile firing, very easy. In Lebanon a sharpshooter has to be far more skilled, the distances were from 700 to 1,000 meters. Here, it’s 100 meters.”
Is it easy to shoot at the head?
“Yes. The guys there, and also those who throw Molotov cocktails, or even shoot, have an instinct to stop, a second to think where to throw or shoot, and this second gives the sharpshooter five or six seconds, and it’s no problem. If he stops, and if you’re also far away, the head is no problem.”
Behind the Jeeps there is someone standing with a rifle. Isn’t he a sharpshooter?
“He usually shoots rubber bullets.”
And what kind do you shoot?
“A sharpshooter fires a lethal bullet, a bullet bigger than an M-16, but its quality is superior to a submachine gun bullet.”
The Palestinians say that the IDF uses a high muzzle velocity. Is that what you do?
“The muzzle velocity for sharpshooters is not that high, less than that of an ordinary M-16. The question is how critical this is. A sharpshooter’s bullet kills if it hits the body. This is a bullet that is ‘metal jacket’ — covered entirely in metal. In a regular bullet, the bottom part isn’t covered, and this interferes with the aerodynamics. On the part that isn’t covered, the air eats the lead a bit — like air can eat a part of a mountain, and gradually it gets into the inside of the bullet and distorts its direction. In sharpshooters’ weapons this doesn’t happen.”
That is, the lead is entirely covered in metal.
“Correct, and it’s more aerodynamic. It comes to a point and it is long. What is also important is the weapon itself, the muzzle, that nothing be attached to the muzzle. Ideally, next to every sharpshooter there is someone who aims, standing there with binoculars.”
Of course you also see.
“You see through the telescope whether you’ve hit the person, but you don’t see exactly where the bullet is going. And if there is a person whose job it is to aim, he can even see this. Through regular binoculars you can see the reverberations the bullet leaves, the dust, the tin, and then he says that you hit at two o’clock, 60 centimeters next to the person. If a sharpshooter isn’t accurate with the first bullet — with the second it’s almost a sure thing.”
Do they tell you to aim for the head, or is it up to you?
“If they tell a sharpshooter to fire his intention will be to hit the head. Because if a sharpshooter fires, he fires for certain in order to kill. Unless there are specific individuals — in this war it hasn’t happened much — whom you’re told to shoot in the legs, and they also ask sharpshooters to do this.”
Why haven’t there been?
“There was a policy that you only shoot at people who are clearly endangering lives. This decreases the amount of shooting by the IDF and the number of wounded, and maybe increases the number killed. Meanwhile, the IDF is trying very hard not to shoot, not to kill, to let them demonstrate a bit — maybe also because of what they told us about two months before it all started, to let Arafat have his demonstrations without giving him and other countries an excuse to get into a state of war.”
Isn’t there a danger that a competition will develop as to who will do more sharpshooting?
“With us, there is no such thing. Somebody told me that at a place where he was, some guys went by and the veterans were angry because the young people weren’t restrained.
They were keen to fire. But even I, who before the army said I would try very hard not to shoot, if you’re already there and into the weapon and you go out on an ambush — it’s terrible to say this, but you hope that something will come of it. You sit there at night and it’s very boring and you’re very tired, and the last refuge is that you really will catch the bad guys and teach them a lesson.
“At one place, the older guys arrived to replace us, and they didn’t believe that the young guys were shooting so much. After they say ‘stop’ you have to stop shooting immediately. And it took them another minute. Because of the keenness to shoot. These are things, in my opinion, that make the IDF stumble, the lack of restraint. There are even soldiers who fire a rubber bullet but load a regular bullet ahead of it — it increases the force. It usually kills.”
Do you know about investigations of errors?
“Every IDF shooting is reported and investigated.”
I’ve been at those places, those demonstrations, where the Palestinians open fire.
“Are you trying to say that the Palestinian firing is pathetic?”
“Correct. I agree. Usually the Palestinian fire is pathetic.”
And the army knew it was pathetic.
“Yes. The shooting is totally pathetic. And until there’s shooting, you know that most of it will be into the air..”
Is this showing off?
“Yes. The IDF knows this.”
So why kill, why not just injure?
“If you decide to wound people, more people will get hurt, and the question is whether this is better. Wounding fans anger even more.”
Who told you so?
“This is my opinion. That is, if you wound someone, even the process of getting hit, when he screams, says that it hurts.”
The IDF knew that the Fatah firing was just showing off, and that the refining of the shooting should be prevented, yet nonetheless “Palestinian firing has gotten better,” that is, the policy of a severe response hasn’t helped.
“I have a friend who’s a settler, and for him the firing isn’t pathetic at all. In his opinion, every time they shoot, we have to warn them by firing back a lot more. If you were to talk to him, this conversation would be totally different. You are talking to me, and by my nature I ask myself more whether just to let them shoot, maybe not fire back. When I am a soldier I don’t ask myself; I ask, but there are orders, and I know in advance that if they shoot, you have to ask whether I need to shoot again.
“It would be too bad for the IDF if it didn’t happen this way. The mistakes occur because this is not the way it is conducted. One person decides to shoot, or someone else decides the opposite, not to shoot. Now I’ll be a bit tougher: The IDF shoots because nevertheless there are cases when soldiers are killed.”
Do you feel that this is out of revenge?
“I don’t know whether the IDF takes revenge. 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. That on that same night I’m going to be shooting more than I did the night before.”
Because you want to, or because they let you?
“Because they let me. I didn’t want to shoot that much, though there are a lot of soldiers who do want to shoot. At first I also wanted to shoot, and after I shot a few times I said, enough.”
You haven’t shot children.
“All the sharpshooters haven’t shot children.”
But nonetheless there are children who were hit, wounded or killed after they were hit in the head. Unless these were mistakes.
“If they were children, they were mistakes.”
Do they talk about this?
“They talk to us about this a lot. They forbid us to shoot at children.”
How do they say this?
“You don’t shoot a child who is 12 or younger.”
That is, a child of 12 or older is allowed?
“Twelve and up is allowed. He’s not a child any more, he’s already after his bar mitzvah. Something like that.”
Thirteen is bar mitzvah age.
“Twelve and up, you’re allowed to shoot. That’s what they tell us.”
Again: Twelve and up you’re allowed to shoot children.
“Because this already doesn’t look to me like a child by definition, even though in the United States a child can be 23.”
Under international law, a child is defined as someone up to the age of 18.
“Up until 18 is a child?”
So, according to the IDF, it is 12?
“According to what the IDF says to its soldiers. I don’t know if this is what the IDF says to the media.”
And children are from 12 down. Is there no order that between 12 and 18 you shoot at the legs and not the head?
“Of course we try to see to it that he really is over 20.”
In the 10 seconds that you have.
“In the 10 seconds that I have, I have to estimate how old he is.”
And in what direction the wind is blowing, and the deviation here and there, and which way he’ll jump the next moment.
“Yes, but there are hardly any mistakes by sharpshooters. The mistakes are made by people who aren’t sharpshooters.”
And it turns out that they happen to hit the children’s heads, and all this is just by chance?
“If you say you have seen children that have been hit in the head a lot, then it is sharpshooters.”
So what you’re saying is that our definition of children is different.
“Your definition is different.”
Because for you it’s someone who is 12.
But a child of 13 doesn’t bear arms, no matter what you call him, a boy or a teenager or an adult.
“He isn’t holding a gun but a firebomb, and in certain places it is possible also to fire on people who throw firebombs.”
Do you know how many people were killed yesterday?
“No. To my regret.”
From what you say about the instructions to be cautious that are given to you as sharpshooters, I conclude that all the people who were killed were armed. But it doesn’t look that way to me, because I am familiar with the events in the field.
“Nor does it look that way to me. There’s nothing to be done, if the IDF decides that it is responding and reacting, a lot of mistakes will happen and relatively a lot of them will be killed. On the other hand, a lot more could be getting killed.
I have seen a pamphlet of instructions for opening fire.
“There is no such thing, they don’t give them out at all. Everything is according to orders the commander gives that morning.”
I want to persist in the matter of the 12-year-olds. Why was this age set?
“I have heard that it was important to the IDF to know whether someone was over 12, so therefore I understood that the age of 12 is a border line. They haven’t told us any age, just that we must not shoot at children. The IDF doesn’t specify ages. We take care not to kill, not to have incidents with many dead. Six dead is normal, there could have been a lot more.”
What do you mean by normal?
“Because they did shoot at us, and if someone shoots at you, even if it’s pathetic, you have to return fire.”