BETHLEHEM, West Bank — In the face of widespread violent protests, Israeli soldiers are pursuing tough new countermeasures against restive young Palestinians, an escalation of force that includes the frequent use of live fire.
Israeli politicians hope a hard response will pacify the population and return calm to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza border. But Palestinian unrest continues, and as one Palestinian leader put it, “in our culture, funerals create more funerals.”
Over the past three months, Israeli forces have shot and killed more than 46 Palestinians during clashes. Most were killed by a single shot to the head or chest, suggesting lethal intent. A handful of others died from wounds inflicted by tear gas canisters or rubber-coated steel bullets.
Along with those killed in clashes, the Palestinian Ministry of Health reports that 1,887 Palestinians have been wounded by live rounds and 3,105 by rubber-coated bullets since the beginning of October. Another 10,000 have been treated for tear gas inhalation.
Those deaths and injuries in clashes are separate from the deaths of more than 90 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces during three months of knife, gun and vehicular attacks against Israelis. Palestinian assailants have killed 21 Israelis. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers and civilians have also been wounded.
The surge in violence has contributed to poisonous tensions, and with the collapse of U.S.-led peace talks, neither side knows where this is going.
Israelis charge that they are under attack from a “new kind of terrorism” by lone-wolf assailants encouraged by militant Islam. The Palestinians decry what they see as a shoot-to-kill response by hardened Israeli forces who have eased their rules of engagement to punish the population and to suppress protests against a 48-year military occupation.
“Palestinian life is cheap,” said Mustafa Barghouti, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative.
“The Israeli forces are not accountable to anyone,” he said. “The world was more upset when an American dentist killed a lion in Zimbabwe.”
A 13-year-old Palestinian named Abdel Rahman Obeidallah was in his uniform in Bethlehem, his book bag by his side, when he was struck by a small-caliber round to the chest in October.
“My son went to school and never came home,” his mother said.
A senior Israeli military official told The Washington Post that the boy was killed by mistake: The sniper was aiming for a “main instigator,” but the bullet ricocheted off the pavement and struck him in the heart.
Responding to allegations that Israel’s response is too harsh, Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, said, “It is very easy to criticize when you have never found yourself in such a situation.”
Erdan, who oversees the Israeli police force, said his officers have been trained on how to “neutralize terrorists” while limiting collateral casualties. He defended the actions of police and soldiers and said that many times the decision to shoot must be made in seconds in a chaotic atmosphere.
“Sometimes the criticisms come from people who do not know what they are talking about or hypocrites who hate Israel anyway — they will always find a way to criticize Israel,” he said.
Clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli forces are a part of life here, but the lethality of the encounters has spiked over the past three months as the use of live fire has increased.
The caliber of the bullets used in lethal actions often is not known. Few Palestinians undergo autopsies, and the Israeli military provides only cursory details of deadly incidents.
It is clear, though, that Israeli forces are routinely deploying snipers armed with rifles that have sound suppressors and fire .22-caliber bullets, which are called “two-twos” by both sides and which Israeli officials say are intended to be less lethal.
These rounds are often fired at the legs of people Israeli soldiers consider “instigators” at violent demonstrations or at attackers posing less than lethal threats, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.
A senior Israeli military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security protocols, said that only three of the Palestinians killed in recent clashes were shot by “two-two” rounds. The rest were killed by M-16-type rifles or other arms.
In a single violent demonstration on Oct. 11 at the Huwara military checkpoint, south of Nablus, a researcher with the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem counted 72 Palestinians injured — 68 by live rounds and four by rubber-coated metal bullets.
Israeli military officials consider .22-caliber bullets a tool for crowd dispersal. They add, though, that lethal fire is allowed in life-threatening situations.
Some Palestinians have been shot during clashes that occur when the Israeli military raids Palestinian villages to arrest suspects.
Malik Shahin, 19, was shot with a single round above his left eyebrow in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem.
“He died on the spot. The hospital told us when they scanned his skull there were 70 fragments, that the bullet just bounced around inside,” said Assad Shahin, his uncle.
“There was nothing special about the day,” Shahin said. “Just the usual.”
Early on the morning of Dec. 8, young men in the camp whistled and shouted that Israeli forces were entering the narrow, twisting alleys to make an arrest.
An Israeli military spokesman said raids can create an especially dangerous environment for Israeli troops, who face cement blocks and firebombs dropped on their heads from rooftops.
Shahin said his nephew may have thrown rocks; he did not know. He said Malik was a high school graduate, unemployed and apolitical.
Another hot spot for clashes is the fence around the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave ruled by the Islamist militant group Hamas and suffering for years under strict travel and trade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. At least 19 Palestinians have been shot and killed there by Israeli troops since early October.
Every Friday since early October, young men, and sometimes women, burn tires and throw stones and gasoline bottles over the fence. Sometimes they rush the barrier in an attempt to reach the Israeli side.
Ahmad, 17, frequently takes part. “I throw stones, but they don’t even reach the soldiers,” he said, declining to give his last name.
Why does he do it, then? “To show solidarity,” he said.
He was hit once in the leg by a rubber-coated bullet.
“Three people I know were wounded by live bullets, but thank God it was light injuries.”
Israeli military officers say that the Gaza border fence is especially dangerous and that live fire is often justified. Militants have used the protests to plant explosive devices on the fence or to fire sniper rounds from the crowds.
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Sufian Taha in Bethlehem and Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.