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Middle East Plastic, but Deadly Palestinian casualties surge

4 minute read
Scott Macleod

At the 75-bed Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in the Gaza Strip last week, wounded Palestinian protesters jammed the emergency room. After unsuccessful surgery, Abdulatif, 26, fingered the yellowing gauze wrapped around his left leg. Still lodged deep in his left thigh was a plastic bullet, Israel’s latest ammunition against the ten-month-old intifadeh (uprising) by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Abdulatif pulled aside the bandage to reveal a reddish silver dollar-size hole in his flesh. Explained a nurse: “There is no difference between plastic and real bullets. They both enter the body and destroy.”

Since Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin instructed his soldiers in late August to start using cartridges tipped with plastic to break up riots in the occupied territories, Palestinian casualties in Gaza alone have leaped from about 20 in July to more than 170 in September. At close range, the bullets can even kill. Not surprisingly, Rabin’s latest gambit to crush the intifadeh has provoked yet another round of criticism from abroad and from Israel’s far left, which charges Rabin with excessive brutality. But it has also raised a disturbing new question: Are Israeli leaders turning up the violence against Palestinians as a way of pandering to voters before Israel’s crucial nationwide election on Nov. 1?

Last week, as seven protesters were killed — two by plastic bullets — and more than 90 others wounded, the U.S. State Department rebuked Israel by saying there is “no justification” for deliberately causing Palestinian casualties. Some U.S. officials charge that Rabin’s plastic bullets are aimed at the voters. The Defense Minister, considered the No. 2 figure in Israel’s Labor Party, dismisses the notion that his new crackdown is politically motivated. But he makes no apologies about stepping up the army’s operations. “The rioters are suffering more casualties,” he told reporters during a tour of the West Bank. “That is precisely our aim. Our purpose is to increase the number of ((injured)) among those who take part in violent activities, but not to kill them.”

Rabin contends that other methods of curbing the protests have proved ineffective, including tear gas and the brutal beatings that prompted an international outcry earlier this year. Israeli troops are generally barred from using regular ammunition unless their lives are in immediate danger. Israel has tried dispersing protesters by firing rubber bullets, which bruise but rarely penetrate the skin. Aggressive Palestinians were undaunted. The new .556-mm plastic projectiles are supposedly less lethal than full metal jackets, but they are intended to cause injuries serious enough to put demonstrators out of action.

By design or not, Rabin’s new crackdown may have the political benefit of reassuring Israeli voters who deem the Labor Party soft on the Palestinians. The right-wing Likud bloc of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refuses to surrender any of the West Bank and Gaza, and some members even boast they could crush the intifadeh in weeks. Labor leader Shimon Peres has endorsed proposals for negotiations that would return some territory to Arab rule, which many interpret as signifying an inability to quell the rebellion. Rabin seems determined to prove them wrong. Said Shamir media adviser Avi Pazner: “If you take the last nine months, it’s certainly helped Labor to have a tough Defense Minister.”

Ultimately, Rabin’s rough tactics may make little difference in Labor’s campaign to win a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The November vote is widely seen as a referendum on whether Israel should keep the occupied lands or get out. The latest opinion polls show Labor and Likud running neck and neck. Israel’s two main political groupings thus may be forced to spend yet another four years as uneasy partners in a coalition that must deal with an uprising no kind of bullet has managed to quell.

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