Israeli Sniper's Anguished Look Into Crosshairs

Order To Shoot Palestinan Suspect — and Return to Normalcy

All Along the Watchtower: An IDF sniper keeps watch over the town of Bethlehem.
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All Along the Watchtower: An IDF sniper keeps watch over the town of Bethlehem.

By Gershon Morris

Published March 17, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.

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.

As we check the target, Lieutenant B gets a call on his secure phone about a border incident, and we rush to pack everything into our armored vehicle and speed over. We were missing a small tool necessary to finish the process of zeroing the scopes at the range, and are forced to do so later back at base. I am nervous, as always, that my M24 isn’t perfectly zeroed. Being a sniper makes you a perfectionist. Success is so black and white, hit or miss, and the difference is so delicate. A bump to the scope or the whisper of a breath while shooting could change everything.

That evening, I feel an urge to pray. I borrow a siddur, and lock myself in a bathroom stall (the only private place around). The prayers aren’t too important but the act feels very necessary.

I think about how the Shamen is going to bed, not realizing a whole group of us are planning to shoot him the next day. I try to remember that he wants to hurt us. He would harm little girls walking in the street. He would probably kill my little sister or brother. It’s still hard for me to accept that he deserves to lose his foot.

As usual, anticipation is what causes the nerves. When we parachuted in the army, the jump itself was a matter of a minute and a half, but the hours of waiting, hoping your parachute wasn’t going to be faulty, were what made it so scary. I get the sense that I am more bothered by the thought of shooting someone than the others, but who knows?

We wake up at 5 a.m. The battalion commander wants us to practice looking at a person’s leg through our scopes from 400 meters, so we stop on the way and wait for light. After a few minutes, the snipers and spotter get out, and we set up the guns to look at the driver and lieutenant standing some 500 meters away. We discuss coordinating which leg we will shoot at, to make sure we’re all on the same leg.

We get back in the vehicle, and the lieutenant gets a call from the lookout girls. Code name “Barry,” an accomplice of the Shamen, is at the border. There’s a cheer in the vehicle, and we roll towards Gaza.

The four of us gear up, and walk north. A few times, we stop and the spotter and lieutenant go up on the berm that shields us from Gaza to scout. Suddenly, we hear gunshots, and my first thought is that some other sniper from a different unit has beaten us to it. An ear by his radio, the lieutenant tells us it was actually warning shots fired by the regular battalion on patrol, and we curse them for ruining everything. However, our battalion commander says it’s good that they shot, because now if Barry comes back, we have permission to shoot according to our strict rules of engagement. Turns out, Barry isn’t too worried about his safety, because he comes right back.

The sniper team reaches one spot where we get the guns up and on the target, but he’s walking away from us at 500 meters. Our lieutenant doesn’t chance the shot. The lookout girls tell us on the secure phone that Barry is on the move north again, and the lieutenant takes us north and decides to cross the berm and advance up to the fence itself. Trudging along the path, my M4 slung on the left side of my body, M24 sniper rifle on my right shoulder, I think that I should write all this down — the feelings of a sniper before a mission.

We sneak through the open space, moving slowly and one at a time. We go up into a mound used by tanks as cover. We’re too visible, so we go down to the low bushes right next to it. Finally, we’re in position, and see Barry in our sights. There are five “bird catchers,” not that I can see anything related to birds. They are moving around, observing our side of the fence. Barry moves toward the fence with a bag. We are constantly trying to move back and forth, and it is rare that all of us have a clear view of Barry and even rarer that his legs are visible over the plants and the folds in the ground. He approaches 200 meters from us to mess with something on the ground, but bushes hide his body from the waist down. He starts walking southwest, and the spotter has trouble getting an accurate distance with the laser range finder. He says 300 meters. Lookout girls on the phone say 350. I raise four clicks on my scope. The spotter then says to raise seven. I raise another click or two and call it good enough. Eventually, there’s a window of opportunity to shoot. The spotter counts down: seven, four, two, esh. We fire.

Barry is about 400 meters away, walking with his back toward us. We miss, and fire again. Barry does not react. The spotter gives no correction, so we fire a third shot. Barry hits the ground, seeming to touch his leg on the way down. After a few minutes, a man in an orange jacket begins to make his way towards Barry. The other sniper and spotter think we hit. I hope they’re right, but my first impression was that we didn’t. I didn’t see his body take any sudden impact, no jump of the shoulders. I’m still trained on the spot where he went down. His bike is visible above the plants. Other heads can be seen cautiously poking up out of the greenery. After a few minutes, I see movement, and Barry stands straight, grabs his bike, and walks away. We are full of disappointment. We crawl a few meters down behind the cover of the hill, and sleep the rest of the morning until the order is given to walk back to where we will be picked up. It’s a strange feeling to have shot at a real person.

Back at base, the social pressure on the snipers for missing is tough. Some people treat us as if our grandmother died. Others tease. The other sniper and I talk about how they don’t understand — there’s a lot more to being a sniper than sharp vision and steady hands. I feel like most of the blame should be on the spotter, for not being organized, being unsure with the range, and not giving corrections.

We discuss what went wrong with the lieutenant, and then give the official report to the major. Plans are made to try again the next morning. In the morning, we get as far as exiting the vehicle, but rain cancels the mission since the targets probably won’t show up. We spend the day guarding a field intelligence vehicle as it scans the border with its periscope cameras. I just want to get out there and shoot again. I won’t be happy now until I hit Barry’s foot. Snipers are trained to be perfectionists. The strange feeling about shooting a person is gone — I want to hit my target.

A long day of boring guarding ends, and as the sun sets into Friday evening, we drive back to base. Our driver is religious, and the rest of us are varying degrees of observant. We sing Lecha Dodi as we drive, a sort of military kabbalat Shabbat. We get back to base for Shabbat dinner. I sit with the sniper squad, rather than my regular team. After the meal, my unit stays late for silly stuff and songs. Among the things that the songs make fun of are the snipers who missed.

That evening we upgrade the camouflage aspect of the mission. I organize face paints, and the spotter finds a camo net for each of the four in the sniper squad. While we are in bed, banter flying back and forth, the lieutenant comes in and confirms that the snipers are waking up at 4:45 a.m.; the mission is a go for the morning.

In the dark cold of morning, we pack up the vehicle with the equipment and the sniper rifles. The other sniper and I face paint it up. I am nervous. I guess I shouldn’t be, I’m not the one who’s about to lose a leg.

The four of us, plus Major W himself, along with his radio man, go and check out the spot where we plan to shoot from today. It passes inspection in the predawn twilight, and we head back to the vehicle to wait for the call that Barry has been spotted. After a while, the call comes. We each put a camo net in our pockets. I take off my fleece, so I won’t overheat while walking, but I put a heat packet in my left pocket to make sure I can keep my shooting fingers warm and sensitive.

We cover our heads and shoulders with the nets, and move out. The lieutenant and spotter lead, and the other sniper and I follow 20 meters behind. We walk along the berm protecting the path from Gaza, but sometimes there are gaps. Then we cross in pairs, smushed against each other and with guns hidden by the profile of our bodies, to reduce noticeable protrusions from the chunk of mass we appear to be from afar. Moving slowly, we clutch the long M24 sniper rifles close to our sides as we step through the mud.

We reach the gap where we are to cross from the path toward the fence. Nets on our heads and guns tucked into our bodies, we advance slowly, one by one, toward where the lookout girls report Barry is sitting. I try to stay low. I avoid making sudden movements and minimize negative space in my body. I lower my face, the most recognizable part of the body, but then remember that I can look up, because my face is covered by the net.

We arrive at the beginning of the incline leading to where the spot is. The spotter and lieutenant go up to scan for Barry; the other sniper and I prepare. Unscrew the covers on the dial of the gun, put in earplugs, take off helmet. (Snipers shoot without a helmet – it gets in the way and puts too much strain on the neck to keep the head raised for a long period of time, as is necessary in shooting position.) We try to put mud on the backs of our hands to darken them, but it’s a bit too dry and doesn’t really stick. I clean my trigger finger with a leaf. The girls say Barry is 220 meters away. The two of us raise two clicks on our scopes.

Leaving our M4s, we carefully belly crawl with the sniper rifles up to the spot. The spotter points me in the direction of the target and I see him, a startling 200 meters away, gazing in our direction, toward Israel. We extend the nets to cover the sight of the gun. It helps that the sun is behind us, in his eyes.

Barry is sitting, scanning the terrain, wearing his usual blue jacket with white on the chest. The spotter tells us to raise three clicks, but we later bring it back down to two. We take one click left for the side wind.

The lieutenant is on the secure phone with the deputy battalion commander, and meanwhile the spotter keeps telling us things like “only shoot if it’s 100 percent,” and “confirm that you guys understand the shot is to the foot only.”

We wait, crosshairs on the target. A few times Barry stands up, but as the spotter begins the count, he sits back down. We don’t have a clear shot at his foot unless he stands. If we shoot while he is sitting, the bullet could hit his thigh and kill him, so we wait for him to stand again. My heart pounds. Unlike the last mission, there is time to think.

Barry seems to notice something. He stares in our direction. The spotter tells the lieutenant not to move. Then, Barry stands up, and this time we are on. The spotter counts seven, four, two, esh. There are two cracks, and Barry stumbles to his right, running away. The spotter reports a hit, but my heart sinks as I see Barry moving on his feet. I throw off the net and we shift our bodies, tracking him with our sights. He seems to be limping, and the limp gets worse. People come to help him, one of them holding him up by the right arm, and it becomes clear that we got him.

The lookout girls confirm a hit. I pump a fist. We get back down to safe ground, all smiles. The sun shines, birds flitter over green fields — a good day in Gaza. We hear the siren of an ambulance . Major W calls the lieutenant, who gives a thumbs-up. Everyone can feel the pressure lift. We put on the nets and head back, satisfied with a mission accomplished.

Apparently all of the senior commanders had been in the lookout girls’ control room watching live and had been in radio contact with the lieutenant as we shot. Back on base, we watch the video. I think how crazy this is, that we are reviewing “game tape,” like professional athletes or something. Around base, we are now minor celebrities, soldiers who actually shot someone.

About a week later, we take down our prime target, and Barry’s boss, the Shamen. He was a clever one, always standing behind bushes, staying low. We must have tracked him through the sights for over five hours, spanning multiple days before finally getting a shot off. It is 10 times harder to shoot someone in the leg than to simply kill him. The leg is narrow, easily concealed by the land, and always moving. And I could have always shot above the leg and claimed it was an accident. No one would have known. It’s ironic how much effort we put into not killing these men.

On this day, the sniper squad has a different lineup. There’s always a rotation, letting guys go home on leave once in a while and rotating which lieutenant is in command. We are in place watching the guy, waiting for a shot at his leg, but he’s kneeling down. Lying in the brush, peering through our scopes, we can see where his birdcage is, and discuss how the only clear shot at his foot is probably if he’s near the cage. At one point the Shamen stands up to pee, and while we can’t get his foot, the spotter can see the guy’s penis from 300 meters.

A few minutes later, the target walks to his cage, and we take the shot. We shoot once, and the Shamen hits the ground. Somehow, we can still see his leg, and the other sniper fires off a second shot, and then I follow suit. The Shamen’s screams of pain hit me with how high pitched and “un-manly” they are. It is a direct, certain hit on the prime target. We trudge back to the pickup spot, where some of the guys smoke celebratory cigarettes and we take a group picture.

Later, we spend a lot of time at Karni crossing, a closed down cargo terminal that had been used to transfer goods into Gaza. Apparently, a group of guys is doing suspicious stuff around here. We have to climb a 50-foot ladder to a lookout ledge on a roof, carrying the sniper rifles and equipment. There’s no action though, just hours of cold watchfulness with a digital zoom-equipped thermal night vision scope.

We are constantly on alert. We plan and sit in meetings until late at night, and wake up before dawn every morning. Most nights, we are woken up by an alert that someone somewhere has approached the border, or may have infiltrated into Israel. We efficiently load ourselves into the vehicle and sleep in any moment that we are not required to be conscious. Usually nothing happens.

One day, when we think we might finally get a break for a few hours to just hang out on base, we get the call to target a militant who is on the border somewhere in northern Gaza. Morale low, we cram into the back of the small jeep we are stuck with that day, rather than our usual big armored vehicle. We are a team of Israeli snipers, being called to go shoot people who we wish would just stay home and let us do the same. As we sit in the jeep, we start singing Beatles songs. “Yesterday” seems to fit the weary mood, and singing together is nice. The mission ends up being called off that day, with no shots fired.

A few days later, we go to northern Gaza to deal with some guys who have been trying to plant explosives. We shoot at the feet of one young guy and for whatever reason, we miss. It’s always hard to tell with snipers — there are so many factors, some our fault and some not. The target, probably in his late teens or early 20s, scampers away and takes cover behind a rock. After a while, he and his friends defiantly return, looking around, trying to spot us, the enemy. We lie hidden in the bushes, watching them through our scopes. They are quite close, and I’m nervous. The M24 isn’t made for this close range. The lieutenant is the lowest quality of the three in our unit, and he is busy on the radio and phone. I worry he’s being too loud, and the Gazans will hear him.

I don’t understand the seeming lack of fear I see in the men we target. They get shot at and come right back. Is it desperation? A life of growing up in the Gaza Strip, used to gunfire and violence? What could be so great about being near the border that it’s worth coming back to be shot at by highly trained soldiers who you can’t see and can’t fight? It must be about pride, refusing to appear scared in front of the “Zionist enemy.” Reading some of the false claims that Hamas makes of damages inflicted on Israel, I think about how they don’t seem to play by the “rules”: that people shouldn’t go where they’ll get shot at, and that arguments should be based on objective facts. Maybe it’s about identity, not facts or reasoning. I lie there in the plants thinking how I’d rather not be there, how I don’t want to shoot at people anymore.

Afterwards, the other sniper and I joke that we missed because we shot flowers instead of bullets. The two of us are both days away from being discharged, and I say I don’t care anymore, I’m ready to be done. He says him, too. All he wants is to “chase barefoot naked girls in the Galapagos Islands.” I put a flower in my ear under my helmet, but it bothers the lieutenant, and he tells me to take it out. We trudge back to the vehicle, rifles on our shoulders.

My last week in the army, I’m supposed to be out already on pre-release vacation. On Friday they tell us we’re going to the abandoned crossing point at Karni for a 24-hour shift with another company. No biggie — we show up and switch out their guys, snipers with whom we had gone through training. We settle in for shifts of lookout and of sitting around bored or sleeping. After 24 hours, they tell us the other company can’t switch us out yet, and it’s going to be a 48-hour shift. I end up there for five days — 120 hours, along with my sniper partner. There is no one to switch us out, as the younger recruits in the unit have just finished their 14-month training period, and aren’t operationally ready and briefed enough yet to start missions on the Gaza border. But the high-up officers want snipers in Karni 24 hours a day, so we stay.

We switch rifle scopes at dawn and at dusk from regular to night vision and back. As people from the unit rotate in and out of Karni, it’s nice to see guys from my team. One day, a mine is spotted on the other side of the border. It is disguised as a rock, but when viewed through thermal vision at night, it’s a different temperature from everything around it. That day, Major W tells us that if anyone (except a woman or child) is spotted approaching that mine, we have advance permission to shoot to kill, if time appears to be short. No one comes, but it’s weird having the green light to just kill anyone who enters a certain area. I’m afraid to listen to music on headphones during my rest time, in case I get called up to the watchtower to shoot.

One night, I’m on the watch shift with a guy from my team and hear an aircraft in the sky above us, but can’t spot it. Everyone else is asleep, sitting in seats of vehicles, lying on the ground, lying wherever is comfortable. Suddenly, BOOM boom boom — we’re under fire! People pile out of vehicles, guns raised. Where’s the attack? The officer in charge goes to the radio and finds out what happened — apparently an Israeli helicopter had been above us, lights off, targeting a weapon stronghold in Gaza. They forgot to coordinate with the friendly forces on the ground, though, and the machine gun fire directly above us gave us a pleasant wake-up.

A few days later, I was done, and that’s how it is. One day you’re in a sniper hole with your crosshairs on a man, the next you’re at home seeing things like that in movies and trying to decide what to have for lunch. The surreal juxtaposition is what gives many soldiers trouble adjusting back to civilian life. The army, which has become your entire world, is suddenly gone — once again a thing of movies and memories — and it almost feels like the whole thing was a dream.

The grandson of a Holocaust survivor, Gershon Morris is a pseudonym for a writer who grew up in the United States and currently lives in Israel where he served in an elite IDF combat unit.



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