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Cracking Bullets, Whizzing Bullets

by Ed Mast

When bullets are fired from two hundred yards away, they make several different sounds. There is always the reverberating report of the weapon being fired. Sometimes there is a buzzing whizz if the bullet passes close enough. If the bullet hits the ground nearby, there is a sharp splat of exploding dirt. And on occasion their is a sharp little crack, which, I learned today, is a tiny sonic boom as the bullet passes extremely close at a speed faster than sound. “When you hear the whizz, the bullet is in your area. When you hear the crack, the bullet has passed very close indeed.” We learned this from a Welsh colleague who had the information from a BBC reporter training for crisis zones.

Several of us — from Sweden, Great Britain and America — had gone to visit the Palestinian village of Salim, near Nablus. Salim and two other villages have been cut off from all transit by a trench which the Israeli army recently excavated. The trench is about 10 feet deep and 20 feet wide, and completely encircles the villages, preventing all wheeled traffic except for one small road, and that road has now been blocked by a roadblock and smaller trench which the rain has turned into a moat. People are going hungry in the village and animals are dying because there is no way to get in food. The roadblock is only intermittently staffed by Israeli soldiers, so on our way in — unlike Palestinian residents, internationals can pass freely — we participated in the apparently illegal act of carrying bags of feed grain across the muddy pond and mud heap which constitute the roadblock. (By the end of this process I began to resemble the Swamp Thing.) Supplies can’t come in, but the people of Salim are also cut off from any access to their usual dumpsites for garbage or sewage, so recent months have seen outbreaks of Hepatitis both A and B.

The shooting took place after we had met with people in the village and several of us had crossed a large open field to look more closely at a long section of the trench itself. When we heard the first firecracker pop of the shots, I started to crouch down, but a young man from London said “No, that’s what they want us to do. We should stand.” So we stood and tried to see where the shots were coming from.

Several Israeli soldiers were firing from the settler road some hundreds of yards away. We were six men, as it happens, and at that distance they might have taken us for Palestinians who were coming too close to the boundary trench. We had been there some time, however, so the more likely targets were three Palestinians who were crossing the field toward us, away from the soldiers, toward the trench and the village behind us. The Palestinians were a man, a woman and a little girl whom I took to be about 5 years old. The parents both held her hands and walked quickly as the shots continued. We helped them as they crossed the trench and climbed up out, and we followed them back toward the village, trying to interpose ourselves between the family and the still-whizzing bullets. I found myself lifting my arms out wide at my sides, both as a universal I Come In Peace gesture to the soldiers, and as a sort of vague helpless gesture to shield the little family. I turned around at one point and noticed that several others were walking with similarly lifted arms.

The man, woman and child were neither trembling nor ducking from the bullets, but simply walking as fast as they could without making the little girl stumble. They did not appear surpised or horrified. Many Palestinians have over the years have tried to communicate their feeling to me with a simple phrase: “This is our life.”

We made it back to the village without casualties, and the firing stopped. It’s difficult to tell what was the soldiers’ intent. Including the little girl, there were 9 of us, and it’s hard to believe that the soldiers couldn’t have hit at least one of us with the 20 or 30 rounds they fired, if they wanted to. On the other hand, I heard many bullets whizzing nearby, and I also heard several of the little cracks which meant bullets very close; so if the soldiers were merely trying to tell us something, they were not playing very carefully with their toys.