Monday, May 21, 2018

Things one needs to know about IDF snipers

A number of weeks ago a video about an Israeli sniper went viral. The film appeared to show the sniper celebrating a shot that injured a Palestinian approaching the border between Israel and Gaza – hardly a war crime, but admittedly not admirable behavior. It then transpired that the celebrating film had been done by someone else, not the sniper. In the general hullaballoo most people didn't seem to notice the real significance of the film, which documented the deliberation and care taken by the sniper and his commander in identifying the target, ascertaining its legitimacy, and shooting only once all the relevant questions had been satisfactorily answered. In order to understand that one would have had to know Hebrew, and most people who stridently proclaim about Israel's actions don't know Hebrew.

Then an IDF reserve officer, Kinley Tur-Paz, came back from the field and posted his experiences on the Times of Israel website. This one was in English, and while it didn't go into great detail, it repeated the same message: IDF snipers are very careful, to the extent that every single shot they make must be entered in an Excel spreadsheet file so as to be accounted for.

Over the weekend Yochai Ofer published the most detailed description of all, in Hebrew in Makor Rishon. Here's a synopsis of his article:

IDF snipers are hand-picked for their ability to stay calm under pressure. They are given special training, which includes the ability to remain still and stable for protracted periods, and to synchronize their breathing with the operation of their weapons. They never shoot in anger or excitement, only after deliberation and careful identification of their targets.

The weapons they use are chosen for the mission, and different contexts require different rifles.

Before  shooting they will have carefully measured distances and the force of the wind. Mistakes can happen and live shots can go astray, but every reasonable precaution is taken that they won't. The snipers are to identify specific targets, and hit only them.

The snipers work in teams, rotating between them to prevent shooting in a state of physical discomfort or exhaustion. Each team is commanded by an experienced sniper armed with powerful binoculars.

Each shot must be authorized by a colonel.

Prior to the events of the Gaza fence the locations were visited by the Military Attorney General, General Sharon Affek, who was briefed on the preparations and authorized them. We are not told if he made corrections, but given his record he well may have. Affek, it might be worth noting, was recently promoted to full General, and became the first openly homosexual officer to reach that rank.

The men targeted by the snipers on the Gaza border were either engaged in harming the border fence or leaders who had been identified for exhorting others to so do.

So what does all this tell us? It doesn't prove that no mistakes were made, and that 100% of the shots made by the IDF never hit the wrong people. But it goes a long way to explain how tens of thousands of demonstrators who remained back from the fence went home unharmed at the end of each day of demonstrations; and it explains why almost all of the casualties were members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. It also begs the question as to the identity of other casualties; if it is true, for example, that a 14-year-old was killed, do we know the specific context of his actions as he was shot? Was he standing 300 yards from the fence waving a flag, or was he perhaps trying to cut the fence? Were the snipers able to know his age?

You read the furious denunciations of Israel for its massacre of innocents, and you know how the IDF operates, and you ask yourself how it's possible to bridge the two narratives and if it's not possible, what to learn from the chasm.