Wael Imad wanted a one-way ticket to martyrdom. It was an early morning in late October, just as the latest Palestinian riots were gathering strength, when the lively 14-year-old entered his father's tiny used-furniture store in Jabalia, a ramshackle town in the north of the Gaza Strip. "I won't be able to come see you tomorrow, Daddy, so can you give me two days' allowance right now?" he asked. Mohammed Imad, unsuspecting, forked over the money. It was less than a dollar, the cost of a shared taxi to the Israeli outpost at Erez, where young Palestinians clashed daily with the guards. Wael left the store and met school friend Hussein Hamoudeh. "I need to go only one way," he told Hussein. "I'll come back in an ambulance."
The next day Wael raced to the front of the riot. It was midmorning on Oct. 22. As he and his friends hurled stones at the Israeli positions, the soldiers shot rubber-coated metal pellets. They zinged past the boys. When they hit, the pellets are supposed to leave a painful welt. But at ranges of less than 25 yds., they can be lethal. Friends recall how Wael sweated in the sun as he raced up the sandy bank to the first of several barbed-wire fences around the Israeli defenses. Hussein called to him to come back. He was too close. The Israelis would target him. Wael pushed ahead. "Martyrdom was calling him," his elder brother Fawzi says.
A rubber bullet thwacked into Wael's shin. Thin and small for his age, he reached down and rubbed the stinging wound with one hand. In his other hand he held a stone. As Wael straightened to throw it, another rubber bullet smacked into his brow between the eyebrows. He fell back, unconscious. Medics rushed the boy to Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. Hussein hurried to Wael's mother Mozna. "Wael has been shot," he told her. Mozna, 40, dashed to Shifa with deep foreboding. Said she: "The moment I heard he had been hit in the head, I knew he was dead."
Israel's army and its political leaders know that Palestinian casualties, particularly among children like Wael, serve only to inflame the Aqsa intifadeh further. The Israeli army maintains that it has refined its tactics in the past few years in an attempt to reduce the number killed at demonstrations. Yet a TIME investigation reveals that Israel's loosely drawn rules of engagement permit soldiers regularly to shoot at children. Hostile protesters younger than age 18, whether armed with guns or Molotov cocktails, even stones, are fair game when Israeli soldiers find their actions threatening. In many cases, Israeli attacks can be indiscriminate, such as machine-gun fire into crowded neighborhoods. Children are frequently victims in these cases as well. Medical officials estimate that 40% of the Palestinian dead in Gaza in the latest violence were under 18. (Israeli officials say they have no way of counting Palestinian casualties.) The U.S. and the U.N. have both accused Israel of using excessive force. International investigators headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell arrive in Israel this week to probe the sources of the 11 weeks of violence that has claimed a total of almost 300 lives, Israeli as well as Palestinian. Last week's fighting--10 were killed on Friday alone--was the most brutal in the past month.
Part of the problem in investigating and monitoring these deaths is that Israeli rules of engagement are interpreted subjectively by whichever soldier happens to be senior man on the scene. In some cases, that can leave the decision in the hands of a conscript just out of high school. Army regulations say that in regular situations, a soldier should shout a warning before shooting and that the first shots should be aimed for an attacker's legs. But anytime Palestinians open fire on Israelis, the warning stages are bypassed. Orders are to shoot to kill right away.
This story is not about the responsibility for the violence of the Aqsa intifadeh. If it were, Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority would surely bear at least an equal share with Israel's government. And Palestinian hard-liners have committed their own atrocities, beating two Israeli reservists to death and attacking an Israeli settler bus, killing two teachers and maiming several children. In the intense pressure of the urban battlefields, however, the high number of Palestinian deaths signals that Israel has not met its responsibility under the principles of the U.N. to rely on the "intentional lethal use of firearms only...when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life."
2. Children and Bullets
Wael Imad's stricken mother arrived at the chaotic main gate of Shifa Hospital. The yard in front of the hospital was crowded with bloodied young men and people searching frantically for injured relatives. Mozna Imad gave her name to an orderly. As soon as she spoke, she was surrounded by doctors and nurses. They carried her off to a single-story white structure in the corner of the yard. This was Shifa's morgue.