Israel debates shoot-to-wound tactics. Using plastic bullets against Palestinians fails to deter protests

The use of plastic bullets was expected to improve Israel's ability to contain the small, rock-throwing protests that have become the main vehicle of the 10-month Palestinian uprising. So far, that hasn't happened.

In fact, the intensity of the rebellion against Israel's 21-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has not diminished, despite substantially higher casualties that Israeli soldiers have inflicted using the new bullets.

During the past two days alone, clashes between soldiers and Arabs were reported in over a dozen locations.

What's more, introducing bullets designed to wound but not kill demonstrators has exacerbated a long-running debate in Israel on the appropriate use of military force.

At issue is whether soldiers should open fire merely to deter Arabs from demonstrating, or only when demonstrators threaten soldiers' lives.

Last August, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was reportedly on the verge of recommending an ``open fire'' policy against stone-throwers similar to one now in effect against petrol-bomb throwers.

Following strong public protests, Mr. Shamir denied that such a proposal was being considered.

Plastic bullets seemed to offer the option of shooting, but only wounding, demonstrators, because the plastic combines the accuracy of lead and the low lethality of rubber. The bullets also allow Israeli troops to stay outside rock-throwing range.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sources say that since plastic bullets were introduced, soldiers have been given permission to fire at stone-throwers, but only at their legs and from at least 75 yards away, for the purpose of dispersing demonstrations.

Defense spokesmen have emphasized the desire to keep fatalities to a minimum. At the same time, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said last week that the IDF's ``purpose is to increase the number (of wounded) among those who take part in violent activities .... The rioters are suffering more casualties. That is precisely our aim.''

But it violates Israeli law, Joshua Schoffman asserts. ``It's the purpose of the legal system, not the Army, to punish and deter,'' says Mr. Schoffman, legal director of Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

``The problem is that with pronouncements like Rabin's, there is, in addition to official orders, a kind of unwritten code in which there is free use of these bullets,'' he adds. ``If people think the defense minister wants a lot of casualties, you can imagine how the soldiers will react.''

So far three Palestinians have been killed and dozens injured by the new bullet.

The mixed results of plastic bullets, and the controversy surrounding their use, throw into sharp relief the difficulty of making military policy in the absence of a political consensus in Israel on how to deal with the intifadah.

``Any strategies for dealing with the uprising are going to be mere holding actions until the politicians make up their minds,'' says one leading Israeli defense expert.

The divisions that have paralyzed Israel's politicians have put Israel's generals in a straight-jacket. They are capable of making marginal innovations - of which the plastic bullet is the latest - but not bold strategies to deal with the uprising that, according to Army figures, has resulted in 210 deaths and 3,200 injuries, nearly all Palestinian since December. [The Associated Press reports at least 280 Palestinian and six Israeli deaths.]

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