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Israel shifts to live bullets

Assassinations and gunfire into mobs take rising Arab toll

Suzanne Goldenberg in Jerusalem, Guardian, Tuesday November 28, 2000

Israeli troops are making increasing use of live ammunition against Palestinian protesters, according to an internal United Nations report obtained by the Guardian.

Live fire now exceeds rubber-coated steel bullets, it says, and this has driven up casualties during the past two months of communal conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The finding has emerged from a study of Palestinian deaths and injuries by the policy unit of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). It has charted a steady rise in injuries from live fire since October 1, three days after the start of the Palestinian uprising, and a parallel decline in the use of rubber-coated bullets.

Since November 15 - the anniversary of a symbolic declaration of Palestinian independence which saw 10 Arabs shot dead by Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza - the use of live fire has exceeded rubber bullets. Last week, 70%-80% of all Palestinian injuries were caused by live bullets, the report says.

The study's other findings are in line with reports from international human rights organisations which document Israeli troops targetting the head and upper body, a policy blamed for the casualty figures: more than 280 dead in two months, and nearly 9,000 injured, almost all Palestinian.

The UNRWA report, which is based on statistics provided by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, also notes the many children among the dead - 28% aged below 16.

The graph also indicates that on several days there was no use of rubber bullets before a resort to live ammunition.

Last week, the journalist Amira Hass published a chilling account of a day in the life of an Israeli sharpshooter in the Ha'aretz newspaper. The high velocity bullets used by the Israeli snipers break up inside the body.

"Every day before we go out they define the principles for opening fire," the sniper told Ha'aretz. "This also changes from place to place." Commanders loosened restrictions after a Palestinian mob hacked and burned two Israeli reservists to death in Ramallah on October 12, the man said.

"After the lynch, for example, the orders for opening fire were far more lenient than they had been the day before."

The unnamed sniper added: "Every time, after there is a serious incident, it's political, you can feel it."

But he also said that commanders often held back trigger-happy conscripts, and were terrified of shooting children after the outpouring of condemnation of the killing of Mohammed al-Durreh, a Gaza boy shot dead in his father's arms in front of TV cameras. "You don't shoot at a child who is 12 or younger," he told Ha'aretz. "Twelve and up is allowed. He is not a child any more, he is already after his bar mitzvah."

The UN made its findings available on the day when George Mitchell, a former US senator who was a key mediator in the Northern Ireland accord, formally started work on a fact-finding commission looking into the violence. He is to submit his report in March.

The UN human rights chief, Mary Robinson, yesterday spoke out in favour of an international monitoring body for the region - a demand Israel categorically rejects.

"The thrust of the [UNRWA] report is urgently calling international attention to the bleak human rights situation in occupied territories," Ms Robinson said in Geneva yesterday. She called for "measures to be taken to reduce the terrible violence".

Israeli army officials argue that soldiers have been forced to use live fire by Arab gunmen who hide among crowds of civilians and children.

Earlier this month, an army legal expert, Colonel Daniel Reisner, said: "The current situation has more of a semblance of war than of peace," and "as a result, we are also applying the principles applicable to warfare."

According to him, the main change of strategy has been to target and assassinate men Israel accuses of leading militias that have attacked its soldiers and settlers.

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