Shooting A Palestinian: The IDF Meets George Orwell

One of the most listened to songs of the early 1980s was U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The song quickly became an anthem for the still highly popular and successful Irish rock band1, headed by the socially conscientious Bono and his deeply spiritual lead guitarist, The Edge. “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a memorably powerful wailing song of protest, was inspired by the events in Northern Ireland that occurred on January 30, 1972. On that fateful date, elite British paratroopers2 fired live ammunition into a crowd of unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, Northern Ireland. Thirteen men, a few of them teenagers, were shot dead and several more were wounded (Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA: A History, Niwot, Colorado: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1994, 261). The British quickly learned that use of live ammunition, even against firebomb-and rock-throwing Irish Catholic protesters, invited violent Irish Republican Army (IRA) retaliation, not to mention worldwide condemnation. Why then would an army with the experience, prowess, and professionalism that has come to characterize the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), consistently fail to learn the remedial lessons absorbed by the British Army3 in Northern Ireland? It is simply not true that the IDF is slow in the learning curve é a favorite argument of Israel’s apologists. For example, in the first six months of the first intifada (1987-1992), the IDF shot dead twenty-five Palestinians under age eighteen, during the last six months of the same intifada, the number reached thirty-eight (See “People And The Land” P.B.S. documentary produced by Tom Hayes. A copy can be obtained from Independent Television Service, 190 Fifth Street East, Ste. 200, Saint Paul, MN 55101, Tel. 612-225-9035 / Fax: 612-225-9102).

In the current Al-Aqsa intifada (September 29, 2000 é March 23, 2001) the numbers of those under age eighteen that have been shot dead ranges between 66 and 85. Yet apologists for Israel insist that the IDF is confronted by a “new” challenge posed by Palestinian adults who deliberately send their children to become martyrs. This anti-Arab racist canard aside, could it be that George Orwell gave us the answer decades ago to the troubling question about IDF behavior?

In his youth, George Orwell (a pseudonym for Eric Arthur Blair) served in the British-Indian Imperial police in Moulmein, Burma. His personal views of the British Raj were critical; however, donned with an Imperial Officer’s uniform and powers, he became the object of Burmese, and especially Buddhist priests’ visceral hatred of all things British. Conflicted by the anger he felt towards his Burmese tormentors and a personal revulsion for the evils of imperialism, Orwell wrote in “Shooting An Elephant”:

“As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos é all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East é I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible” (Susan McLeod et al., Writing About The World, Second Edition, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995, 258).

During one of his routine patrols, Orwell had to react to a male elephant that had gone “must,” broken from a flimsy chain, rampaged a local market stand, and killed a young Burmese man. The elephant’s mahout, a tamer, was out of town. The Burmese villagers expected the gaunt British Imperial police officer to shoot the elephant, and anything less would be perceived as cowardice and weakness. Orwell understood this. As a crowd in excess of two thousand Burmese gathered behind him, Orwell realized the beast’s fate:

“éthe sea of yellow faces é [were] certain that the elephant was going to be shot é [they] did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands, I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all é it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East é I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” (McLeod et al., 260-261).

George Orwell’s musings offer an insight into the mind of the average soldier, for professional soldiering has universally recognized existential aspects familiar to all soldiers. Only in rare cases in the history of soldiering, e.g., the Waffen SS and Einsatzgruppen, Nathan Bedford Forrest at Ft. Pillow, the Red Army at Katyn Forest, does pure evil characterize soldiers’ Weltanschauung and conduct. These are by and large, anomalies in the annals of soldiering. Likewise, behind almost every IDF bullet stands an Israeli soldier who is as conflicted as Orwell was decades ago. Let us consider the “Orwell” residing in nearly every IDF soldier’s psyche.

One of the most chilling pieces to appear in any newspaper in decades, “Shooting Palestinian Children,” by Amira Hass, writer for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, relays an interview she had with an IDF sharpshooter. The soldier’s frankness as well as cultural perceptions of when children reach adulthood is startling. In terms Orwell would have recognized, the soldier reveals what he believes the “natives” expect of him, and what is in their best interests:

Amira Hass (AH): “I’ve been at those places, those demonstrations, where the Palestinians open fire.

Sharpshooter: Are you trying to say that the Palestinian firing is pathetic?

AH: Yes.

Sharpshooter: Correct. I agree. Usually the Palestinian fire is pathetic.

AH: And the army knew it was pathetic.

Sharpshooter: Yes. The shooting is totally pathetic. And until there’s shooting, you know that most of it will be into the airé

AH: Is this showing off?

Sharpshooter: Yes. The IDF knows this.

AH: So why kill, why not just injure?

Sharpshooter: If you decide to wound people, more people will get hurt, and the question is whether this is better. Wounding fans anger even more.

AH: Who told you so?

Sharpshooter: This is my opinion. That is, if you wound someone, even the process of getting hit, when he screams, says that it hurts” (Amira Hass, “Shooting Palestinian Children,” Ha’aretz, November 20, 2000).

Orwell knew that shooting a trained elephant, the equivalent of a motorized tractor to a Burmese farmer, was the last thing he should do, but exactly what he perceived the natives wanted. Here, our IDF sharpshooter acknowledges that the unpleasant but ineffective gunfire from Palestinian Tanzim irregulars is pathetic, but insists that lethal retaliatory IDF shooting is preferable either to restraint or harmless warning shots. He is Orwell’s “hollow, posing dummy” (McLeod et al., 260) with his “magical rifle in [his] hands” (McLeod et al., 260) assuming that death is preferable to life with pain (and colostomy bags4) for the Palestinians in the same way Orwell assumed that the spectacle of shooting the elephant was preferable to the loss of face he “knew” would occur had the elephant lived.

For millions of Palestinians, and I hope all of humanity (though that might be expecting too much) the IDF shooting, maiming5, and murdering of Palestinians, particularly the young, is evil incarnate. However, we must resist the temptation of demonizing the IDF, for by so doing we not only imitate Israel’s ugly, racist demonization of Palestinians, but more importantly, we lose insight into the nuances of soldiers who after all can be reached and persuaded.6 For example, shouting “fascist baby killers” directly at American service personnel returning from the Vietnam War (1961-1973) only alienated many whose sense of decency, though severely wounded and hidden under layers of rationalizations, remained intact. Rather, empathy with their plight, seeing these American soldiers as victims, which in no way undermined sympathy for Indochina’s suffering masses, had a greater chance of turning these warriors into war resisters. The same holds true for IDF soldiers é we must first hold the Israeli society, i.e., the political leadership, the media, the schools, the Zionist and tribal religious ideologues, and the IDF commanding officers all responsible. This is not to absolve IDF soldiers of responsibility but to insist that the pressure to follow orders can be overwhelming. We return to the IDF sharpshooter.

Asked by Amira Hass about the ground rules for lethal engagement, the soldier replied:

“Every day before we go out they define the principles for opening fire. This also changes from place to place. There are places where the orders are more lenient than in other places. The orders, wisely, are that we should be very selective, very precise. Or it depends on the day. After the lynching7, for example, the orders for opening fire were far more lenient than they had been the day before” (Hass, 11/20/00).

Here we have an example of what occurs when the military leadership, and by direct implication the political leadership as well, does not have a clear policy outside of thug retaliatory tactics. Asked why so many wounded and dead Palestinian gunshot victims were hit in the head, our sharpshooter offered an honest explanation:

For example, someone says to the other forces that he has identified someone suspicious – we identified a boy who is making strange movements, maybe he wanted to pick up a stone or something like that. The one who identified him strongly requests permission to fire in his direction. The forward command, the brigade commander, definitely does not allow it, and he continues to plead, and so the commander says, if you think he is very suspicious, fire a warning shot, and a warning shot is 20 meters, and fire into an open area. From the debriefing afterward, it turns out that that he had seen the person’s head through a telescope, took five meters, and the wind … The rifle wasn’t aimed so precisely, and he hit him right in the head” (Hass, 11/20/00).

Amira Hass followed up this startling admission of “intentional error”:

AH: “How do you explain that people have been hit in the upper part of the body? Do you need skill to be on target?

Sharpshooter: The IDF shoots very selectively, shoots everyone who needs to be shot – or at least in 90 percent of the cases.8 That is to say, everyone who throws a Molotov cocktail and can kill someone else – so if he’s holding it [the firebomb], we shoot him. We don’t fire at him with an automatic weapon, but we shoot at him with a sharpshooter’s rifle, and in most cases these aren’t long ranges. A sharpshooter, from 200 meters, has no problem hitting the head and certainly if he aims at the head – the upper part of the body – there’s no problem” (Hass, 11/20/00).

The sharpshooter’s complicity in “intentional error” deepened when Hass inquired about the differences between regular M-16 and sharpshooter bullets, and how the sharpshooter aims at his target:

Sharpshooter: “Ideally, next to every sharpshooter there is someone who aims, standing there with binoculars.

AH: Of course you also see.

Sharpshooter: You see through the telescope whether you’ve hit the person, but you don’t see exactly where the bullet is going. And if there is a person whose job it is to aim, he can even see this. Through regular binoculars you can see the reverberations the bullet leaves, the dust, the tin, and then he says that you hit at two o’clock, 60 centimeters next to the person. If a sharpshooter isn’t accurate with the first bullet – with the second it’s almost a sure thing.

AH: Do they tell you to aim for the head, or is it up to you?

Sharpshooter: If they tell a sharpshooter to fire his intention will be to hit the head. Because if a sharpshooter fires, he fires for certain in order to kill” (Hass, 11/20/00).

Notice how throughout the interview, the sharpshooter refers to “they,” in other words, his commandeering officers who in turn delegate orders from on high. This is a dilemma faced by all soldiers; at what point does a soldier contravene illegal, immoral orders? For this particular Israeli soldier, apparently shooting a Palestinian child does not cross the threshold of obeying illegal, immoral orders. We know this because of his astonishing and culturally revelatory response to Hass’s inquiries about whether the IDF deliberately targets children:

Amira Hass (AH): “You haven’t shot children.

Sharpshooter: All the sharpshooters haven’t shot children.

AH: But nonetheless there are children who were hit, wounded or killed after they were hit in the head. Unless these were mistakes.

Sharpshooter: If they were children, they were mistakes.

AH: Do they talk about this?

Sharpshooter: They talk to us about this a lot. They forbid us to shoot at children.

AH: How do they say this?

Sharpshooter: You don’t shoot a child who is 12 or younger.

AH: That is, a child of 12 or older is allowed?

Sharpshooter: Twelve and up is allowed. He’s not a child any more, he’s already after his bar mitzvah. Something like that.

AH: Thirteen is bar mitzvah age.

Sharpshooter: Twelve and up, you’re allowed to shoot. That’s what they tell us.

AH: Again: Twelve and up you’re allowed to shoot children.

Sharpshooter: Because this already doesn’t look to me like a child by definition, even though in the United States a child can be 23.

AH: Under international law, a child is defined as someone up to the age of 18.

Sharpshooter: Up until 18 is a child?

AH: So, according to the IDF, it is 12?

Sharpshooter: According to what the IDF says to its soldiers. I don’t know if this is what the IDF says to the media.

AH: And children are from 12 down. Is there no order that between 12 and 18 you shoot at the legs and not the head?

Sharpshooter: Of course we try to see to it that he really is over 20.

AH: In the 10 seconds that you have.

Sharpshooter: In the 10 seconds that I have, I have to estimate how old he is.

AH: And in what direction the wind is blowing, and the deviation here and there, and which way he’ll jump the next moment.

Sharpshooter: Yes, but there are hardly any mistakes by sharpshooters. The mistakes are made by people who aren’t sharpshooters.

AH: And it turns out that they happen to hit the children’s heads, and all this is just by chance?

Sharpshooter: If you say you have seen children that have been hit in the head a lot, then it is sharpshooters.

AH: So what you’re saying is that our definition of children is different.

Sharpshooter: Your definition is different.

AH: Because for you it’s someone who is 12.

Sharpshooter: Yes” (Hass, 11/20/00).

We know the accumulative outcome of this kind of thinking in the IDF. According to a recent AP report, since the Al-Aqsqa intifada began on September 29, 2000 and up March 15, 2001, sixty-six of the 371 Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs killed were under eighteen (Ibrahim Barzak, “Children Partake in Israel Rallies,” AP, March 15, 2001). Other reports give higher figures: B’Tselem places the number of children at seventy-three (B’Tselem, “The Illusion of Restraint in Dealing With Palestinians: A Report,” December 24, 2001 é a copy of the report is available at Arjan El Fassed, A Dutch-Palestinian political scientist and human rights activist for Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda) placed the figure at eighty-five children killed from September 29, 2000 to December 5, 2000 (Arjan El Fassed, “Israel’s Constant War on Palestinian Children,” Media Monitors Network, 2001 é The Health Development Information and Policy Institute (HDIP é has as of February 13, 2001, listed fifty-six Palestinian minors killed, twenty Palestinians over age fifty killed, and a total of sixty-eight percent of Red Crescent ambulances hit by live ammunition (Jaffer Ali, “The Torment of Occupation,” Media Monitors Network, 2001).

The details of some of these shooting are horrifying:

Sara, an eighteen-month-old child, was killed after a Jewish settler riddled her father’s car with bullets.

The IDF soldier in the watchtower who shot fourteen-year-old Mo’ayyad Osaama al-Jowareesh at close range. The boy’s crime? He walked underneath the tower on his way to school (Fassed, “Israel’s Constant War”).

Few recent killings have shocked as much as Ubey Darraj’s on March 2, 2001. “Witnesses added that the [IDF] machine-gun fire came from army positions at the Psagot Jewish settlement after a group of children were playing with cap guns below the apartment building where Darraj lived” (AFP, “Israelis Soldiers Kill Nine-Year-Old Palestinian Boy, 13-Year Old Dies,” March 2, 2001). Ubey Darraj was nine-years-old.

Recall our sharpshooter’s description of the two-man sharpshooter teams é one a spotter, the other the shooter. It would be too easy to call these IDF soldiers monstrously wicked; such hyperbole does not offer rational insight into an awful policy of “shoot to kill.” Our young sharpshooter is the classic Universal Soldier; a pawn actually, caught up in the geo-political realpolitik agendas of older, more powerful men. It is these older men, the Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharons of the world, likeminded men whom Orwell subtly projected into his own persona as the tin soldier in the then mighty British Empire’s master chess game of world dominion: “é in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it” (McLeod et al., Writing About The World, 260). What gives Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant” such potency is his great honesty:

“é I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula sarculorum (Latin: For ever and ever), upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty” (McLeod et al., 258-259).

Likewise, the IDF sharpshooter in the Amira Hass interview is a complicated fellow; he emotes empathy for his victims, acknowledges the non-lethality of most Palestinian gunfire, and yet does not realize that International Law defines children as those between the ages of one day up to eighteen years old. Here is the Universal Soldier, a being who has to create multiple layers of defense, rationales that serve as ramparts (Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance comes to mind) that guard his psyche from the soul-deadening realities of war. Soldiers like him, and I suspect he represents the bulk of the IDF, can be reached. But it requires a Herculean task. It begins first and foremost by removing the Army of occupation from Palestinian lands immediately. That must happen first before we can work at moving Israeli Jews away from the racist ideology of Zionism and towards the liberating quality of democratic pluralism and peace with their Palestinian brothers and sisters.

If the Israeli sharpshooter remains a soldier of occupation, he will go on shooting down Palestinians, if for no other reason than his fear that to do otherwise will reveal himself a fool. As Orwell wrote in the conclusion to “Shooting An Elephant”:

“The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (McLeod et al., 262).

Mr. Michael Lopez-Calderon taught High School Social Studies in Miami, Florida for seven years until March 2, 2001, when he was asked to leave the Jewish Day school where he had taught for the past five years. Michael was asked to leave for having posted pro-Palestinian comments on Palestine Media Watch’s subscriber-only e-mail. He remains an activist in the Miami area.