500 meters from the Israel-Gaza border — The team — two of us snipers, a spotter, the lieutenant, and a driver, sit around a table in the small office of Major W, commander of this special infantry unit. I examine a grainy black-and-white photo that’s being passed around — a chubby middle-aged man in a jacket with white sleeves standing in a sunny field. The picture is from military intelligence, and it shows the man we are planning to shoot.
Our code name for him is the “Shamen,” the “fat guy.” A creative name, probably given by the lookout girls who monitor the border 24/7 from screens in their command center, not far from the office where we are sitting. The intelligence folder has statistics on how close the Shamen comes to the fence, what hours of the day he shows up, and information on previous attempted missions. Our unit has recently arrived for a shift of a few months, helping to guard the Gaza border. I am in the last few months of my service.
The Shamen is a confirmed leader of a group of Palestinian men who, disguised as bird catchers, bring their cages into the no man’s land by the border fence and loiter, gathering intelligence on Israel, planting explosives by the fence or participating in efforts to dig tunnels for attacks into Israel. The IDF policy is that these non-uniformed militants are given warning shots in the air to remind them, as they already know, that they cannot come up to the fence. After the men ignore warning shots or return to the fence, snipers are sent to shoot them in the leg, a nonlethal shot meant to wound but not kill, and prevent them from continuing their militant activity. Only if a person is a direct threat will officers give permission to shoot to kill.
We go through the well-worn army routine of the “battle procedure” (the period of planning before a mission, usually a day or two long, but longer if possible and shorter if necessary). Maps are memorized, guns cleaned. Details and walking formations learned, possible situations analyzed. This won’t be our first sniper ambush, but I haven’t ever been part of a mission with a specific target, and we have never yet encountered live fire during an operation.
I feel conflicted about deliberately planning to shoot a person. We prepare equipment — rubber mats to lie on when shooting, sandwiches, and warm clothing. We update the equipment list that each soldier always has in his combat vest, to make sure that every piece of gear is always accounted for down to the last piece of tape or bullet.
We grab our berets and head to the office of the higher-ranking battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel A, for the pre-mission review, where he questions us before giving approval to go ahead. He tells us it will actually only be a 12-hour ambush, rather than a 36-hour hideout as planned, which is a pleasant surprise. He wants us to make sure our M24 sniper rifles are zeroed and instructs us to practice shooting at a leg specifically, so the mission is delayed by a day, and the next morning we go to the shooting range at a nearby base with B, the sniper officer of the battalion (and also my commander from sniper training the year before). After zeroing our sights at 100 meters per usual, we get in our sniper shooting formation — the other sniper on the left, the spotter with his x40 spotter binoculars in the middle, and me on the right. The other sniper shoots right-handed, so he lies on the left, where his left leg can extend to the side to stabilize his body. I shoot lefty, so I am on the right side, where my right leg can stick out to the side without obstructing the other two guys.
To simulate shooting a leg at 400 meters, we place a thin strip of electrical tape at 100 meters, the farthest this particular shooting range goes. We train the crosshairs of our day scopes on the tape. The spotter has the other sniper aim for the center of the tape as I focus on the edge, about a centimeter away, in case of small wind differences, to ensure that at least one of us will hit when we shoot simultaneously. The spotter gives the rhythmic countdown: seven, four, two, fire. The numbers seven, four and two are used because the Hebrew words have no similar sounds to each other or to esh (fire), and could not be mistaken for each other by a sniper struggling to hear. On esh, two cracks are heard, and the spotter tells us with satisfaction that, as planned, the tape was pierced by one bullet in the middle, and one bullet to the side.