NOBODY can have been anything other than deeply troubled by events along the Gaza/Israel border recently. There is nothing uplifting in the sight of seemingly unarmed civilians being shot as they protest against as what they see as the illegal confiscation of their ancestral homes. And, having been on the receiving end of similar protests in the past, I can tell you there’s nothing particularly uplifting about being on the other side either.
Much has been made of the one-sidedness of the confrontation; Palestinians armed with rocks, slings and kites carrying small petrol bombs have been arrayed against the drones, teargas, and bullets of the IDF. Some 60 Palestinians killed and 2,770 wounded (1,300 by “live fire”) with one Israeli reported wounded over the period of the clashes. A David and Goliath re-run, some have said. And yet, as ever, there are hidden truths behind the main narrative.
The first inkling of this came when Hamas itself declared that 50 of the dead were members of the Islamist group. This in itself does not exonerate the use of lethal force by the IDF, but it seems to confirm the speculation that Hamas had at the very least exploited the protests if not actually encouraging or indeed organising them. It is also remarkable that Israeli soldiers were able to identify and target Hamas members so accurately, as it surely cannot be a coincidence that they formed the great majority of the dead. And also that so many of the wounded appear to have been hit in the legs or lower limbs, indication that the IDF was not following a policy of “shoot to kill”, I would suggest.
Be that as it may, what puzzles me as a former soldier is why the IDF used lethal force with such abandon. There are numerous means which security forces at their disposal to control riots and demonstrations; tear gas, water cannon, and plastic baton rounds (or rubber bullets) are well known tools often deployed when demonstrators get out of hand. We know from the news footage that the Israelis used gas canisters, sometimes dropped from drones, and there are reports of “rubber bullets” being used, but the preponderance of casualties were caused by live rounds.
As an aside, we should note that, contrary to popular misconception, high velocity bullets are not designed primarily to kill. They are designed to incapacitate, and scientist for many years have undertaken ghoulish calculations to ensure that, under specified circumstances – usually at a certain range, having penetrated a designated level of helmet and/or body armour – the round still imparts sufficient kinetic energy to its target to render the individual hors de combat. Killing someone takes one enemy out of the conflict; wounding them removes two or three more, those required to look after the casualty.
However, high velocity rounds still inflict catastrophic levels of damage to those unfortunate enough to be hit by them. It has been claimed that the battles on the Gaza border have created a “generation of young amputees”, at least 32 since March this year according to the Gaza health ministry. Many of these have been children, and the combination of undeveloped bones and inadequate and overwhelmed medical facilities have only exacerbated the tragedy.
The ferocity of the IDF on this occasion contrasts with the restraint generally shown by British army troops in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the early 1970s. Granted that the riots in the Province were seldom if ever on the scale of the Gaza demonstrations, but there were many occasions on which British soldiers were confronted, and attacked, by large crowds of belligerent youths. On the majority of occasions serious casualties were limited or avoided altogether, although liberal use was made of CS gas, water cannons, and rubber and plastic bullets. And it should be said that these too can cause serious injuries.
The major exception to this is, of course, Bloody Sunday. Sometimes called the Bogside Massacre, this infamous incident took place on 30th January 1972 in the Bogside area of Londonderry. Soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment (1 Para) shot dead 13 seemingly unarmed civilians taking part in a civil rights march, with another civilian dying later of wounds. In due course the Savile Inquiry into the incident found that the killings were both "unjustified" and "unjustifiable" and that all of those shot were unarmed, and that soldiers "knowingly put forward false accounts" to justify their firing.
The question is, then, what might make normally disciplined and well-trained troops open fire on unarmed civilians? Well, there might be a number of reasons. It might be that soldiers genuinely fear for their lives and react in a way to preserve themselves and their comrades as best they know how. It could be, of course, that they have been ordered to respond that way, but why would they when other tactics and weapons are available? It could be that they were frightened, always possible with the conscripts of the IDF but most unlikely in the case of 1 Para in 1972. They, along with the Royal Marines, are the shock infantry troops of the British armed services; they may well have been apprehensive, but scared?
I don’t have an answer to this conundrum, and I’m not saying that either the IDF or 1 Para lost their coherence in these separate incidents. But history shows numerous examples of soldiers from normally well-disciplined units losing control and running amok. It seems to be one of the risks run in all wars in history, and sometimes there appears to be no accounting for it. Strong moral leadership at all levels is key to avoiding these worst of excesses.
As I have said oftentimes before, the first casualty of armed conflict is truth, and we may never know what really happened on the Gaza border, nor indeed in Londonderry nearly 50 years ago, Savile Inquiry notwithstanding. But one thing is certain; conflict and death resolve nothing and there are no winners. In the end, discussion and compromise are the best paths to peaceful resolution.
© Stuart Crawford 2018