Israel is trying to maim Gaza Palestinians into silence

Today the Israeli army is still using Yitzhak Rabin’s ‘break the bones’ policy, and it does so with sniper rifles.

Gaza wounded
Palestinian cyclist Alaa Al-Daly, 21, lost his leg by a bullet fired by Israeli troops in Gaza City [Reuters/Suhaib Salem]

Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry released their report stating that during the Great March of Return, which commenced on March 30, 2018, Israeli snipers intentionally fired on civilians who presented no danger to them – they shot protesters, medics, journalists, disabled people, and even children.

The February 2019 Situation Report from the World Health Organization (WHO) states that 266 Gazans have been killed since the beginning of the march. But civilian deaths are only part of the story. The report also highlights the fact that in just under one year, 29,130 people – more than 0.01 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip – have been injured. Of those, 6,557 sustained live ammunition gunshot wounds and in 89 percent (5,183) of these cases, the lower limbs were affected.

During the protests, sniper bullets that are designed to kill a target at a distance of more than a kilometre were fired on protesters from just a couple of hundred metres, causing devastating injuries. Patients with such injuries usually require five to nine surgeries before their wounds could heal and their treatment takes a minimum of two years to complete. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health’s Limb Salvage Unit, there are between 800 and 1,200 young Palestinian men currently awaiting reconstructive surgery in Gaza. 

Earlier this month, an experts meeting was held by Doctors without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) in Brussels to discuss the burden of providing reconstructive surgery to these patients. Ironically, by the end of the first day of the MSF meeting on March 22, another 181 Palestinians had been wounded in Gaza, some of them by live ammunition.

At the MSF meeting, Palestinian surgeons from Gaza’s largest hospital Shifa described how the majority of those injured by Israeli snipers were shot in the lower thigh/back of knee where a single bullet can damage nerves, arteries and the knee joint all at once. The prevalence of such hard to treat injuries, reminiscent of the ones sustained by Northern Ireland’s “kneecapping” victims during the Troubles, demonstrate how Israeli snipers shoot not only to temporarily immobilise their targets, but also to inflict long-term damage. 

Approximately 30 percent of such gunshot wounds lead to bacterial bone infections, further complicating an already gruelling treatment process. In the age of multidrug-resistant bacteria (MDR), treating these infections is both difficult and costly. 

According to the WHO, 124 amputations have taken place in Gaza in the last year as a result of injuries sustained during the Great March of Return. This number is likely to increase in the coming days, as infected gunshot wounds can deteriorate quickly and render limbs unsalvageable, despite the best efforts of medical professionals. 

Before the start of the Great Return March a year ago, Israel’s repeated wars on Gaza had left thousands of Palestinians with war-related disabilities. These injuries, just like the ones from the past year, are the result of a technologically advanced version of the infamous “break the bones” policy former Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin pursued during the first Intifada – today, Palestinian bones are broken not with clubs and bare hands, but with sniper rifles. 

This policy of intentionally maiming protesters and creating an epidemic of disability serves several purposes for Israeli settler colonialism.

First, it puts enormous strain on the already crumbling Palestinian healthcare infrastructure. On May 14, 2018, for example, during the protests against the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, Israeli forces wounded so many Palestinians (more than 1,300) within 10 hours that the healthcare system was completely overwhelmed and hospitals in Gaza ran out of beds, forcing doctors to issue early discharges.

Second, it burdens already struggling Palestinian families, who not only lose a breadwinner, when one of their members is maimed, but also have to provide care for him or her and find additional funds to cover medical costs.

Third, maiming attempts to smother the spirit of resistance of protesting Palestinians while avoiding international criticism for mass killing. By creating a humanitarian catastrophe, Israel is able to reframe the global debate around the rights of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip from that of national liberation and anti-apartheid struggle to one of the medical needs of an afflicted population. The need to provide for a large number of disabled people further entrenches modes of dependency on aid. 

The past year has been a testament to the unbridled bravery of the Palestinian people in Gaza. The international community has, unfortunately, yet again, failed them – further emboldening Israel’s sense of impunity that fuels its crimes.

Despite this failure, the determination of the Palestinians in Gaza to end a medieval blockade that has lasted for over 12 years – robbing a whole generation of its potential – spurred by their belief that they deserve a better and more dignified life, will go down in the annals of history as testimony to the human spirit.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.