Rubber Bullets Hurt Like Hell

Barton Gellman and Amy Wilentz

Rubber Bullets Hurt Like Hell

Barton Gellman and Amy Wilentz

Rubber Bullets Hurt Like Hell
An email conversation about the news of the day.
May 16 2000 2:17 PM

Barton Gellman and Amy Wilentz

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Dear Amy,

Advertisement

No dog, no mayor. Doubtful he would have dropped by yesterday, on account of the noise. Con Ed was jack-hammering a trench outside the main entrance all night long. Possibly they're digging a photographer's blind.

Since you ask, I'm not the least bit blasé about gunplay. I don't fathom why some reporters think they're bulletproof. Anytime I saw soldiers chamber a round, in the West Bank or elsewhere, I looked for a vantage point behind a heavy wall or a truck engine. Hard to say which side is more dangerous to journalists. The Palestinian police are strikingly short on what American soldiers call "muzzle discipline"; you never know where they'll point their weapons, and they don't either. The Israelis aim a lot better, but occasionally they aim at journalists who annoy them. Rubber bullets won't kill unless they're fired point-blank, but I am reliably informed they hurt like hell. On balance it is riskier, but a much better story, to hang with the Palestinians in a fight. You may be in the Israeli line of fire, and as you noted you have to watch your back, but at least the Palestinians will talk to you. Israeli soldiers are ordered not to, and when they do an officer tends to stop them.

It's sad to see the fighting ramp up again, but this is not 1996. The shooting you saw four years ago was frightening because it intensified for days and involved significant firefights between organized forces on each side. A lot more people died, and it was one of maybe two moments since 1993 that I personally thought the Oslo peace deal could die. Fully half of Netanyahu's government said to hell with the talks, let's retake the West Bank and Gaza. This time Barak and Arafat are still moving forward, and the street fights (from a distance) did not seem to have quite the same out-of-control feel.

I will say I'm pleased that Israel has not adopted the Forsyth-Wilentz Rent-a-Troop Plan. Generally, with well-known exceptions, Israeli conscripts show some restraint--and not only by the standards of the neighborhood, or of tribal conflict elsewhere. Inevitably they look like bullies because of the David-and-Goliath casting, but you know the 19-year-olds don't feel like Goliaths most of the time. It is scary for sure for a squad to face an advancing crowd of rock-throwers; if they get overrun, or a rock flies true, they're in big trouble. How would your mercenaries react to that? Armies that work don't (usually) slaughter protesters because their soldiers don't join for the fun of bloodshed, because they have a chain of command that (usually) holds them back, and because the chain of command stops at political leaders who (usually) care about how it would look if they let the troops run wild. Guns for hire have no such restraints.

I suppose you novelists have to stick together. Since we're on the Middle East, and you were too shy to plug your new book, can you finally tell me what it is about? All I know from hints past is that it is set in the Holy Land, that your husband made you put in love scenes and that you compromised by writing in really bad sex. Is that about the gist of it?

Curious but yellow,

Bart

A former Pentagon, Middle East, and diplomatic correspondent, Barton Gellman is special projects reporter for the Washington Post. Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier. She writes frequently about the Middle East and is finishing a novel about Jerusalem.