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March 20, 2009

Israelis Using 'Excessive' Force Against Protesters


by Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH - The critical wounding of a U.S. activist has highlighted the excessive use of force by Israeli forces.

The activist, Tristan Anderson, 38, was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israel's separation barrier in the Palestinian West Bank last week. He remains in intensive care in Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv.

Anderson was one of approximately 400 international, Palestinian and Israeli protestors taking part in a demonstration in the village of Ni'ilin, near the central West Bank city Ramallah, when he was hit by a teargas canister.

Since Israel's devastating three-week war on Gaza, human rights organizations and activists have accused the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of using indiscriminate violence and testing new weapons on unarmed protestors.

The teargas canister which hit Anderson is a new variety being used by the IDF, and is particularly lethal if fired directly at protestors.

The gas canister can travel over 400 meters. It does not make a noise when fired, or emit a smoke tail, and has a propeller for mid-air acceleration. A combination of velocity and silence increases the danger it poses.

Witnesses gave testimonies to the media and to human rights organizations that they saw Israeli soldiers aiming at Anderson before they shot the canister from a distance of about 60 meters. It hit him directly on the forehead. The impact of the canister caused severe damage to the right eye, and Anderson has had to undergo critical brain surgery.

Israeli soldiers continued to fire teargas canisters towards the wounded man and the people surrounding him as he lay critically injured on the ground and Palestinian medics tried to give him first aid.

Later, a Palestinian ambulance trying to rush Anderson to hospital was blocked at least five minutes by Israeli soldiers. Only after other foreigners engaged the soldiers in heated debate did they allow the ambulance to pass.

Anderson was then delayed another 15 minutes while an Israel ambulance was called, because Palestinian ambulances are not allowed to cross into Israeli territory without special permit.

Jonathan Pollack, an Israeli activist who witnessed the event said that the soldiers had fired unnecessarily. "There was no way that their lives were even remotely in danger or that they might have been injured," Pollack told IPS.

"Even if the IDF (Israeli defense forces) argument was true that they had been the targets of stones before they shot him, no stone could travel uphill for 60 meters and threaten them, and Anderson had definitely not been involved in any violent activity."

Pollack said the demonstration had finished and most of the demonstrators had left when the teargas was fired. "At the time of the shooting there were no confrontations, and Anderson was standing amongst about 10 remaining protestors just milling about."

Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli rights group B'Tselem says that the IDF has at times used crowd control measures indiscriminately. "The teargas canister is not meant to be used as a weapon or fired directly at protestors but in an arc or at an angle," she told IPS.

"We have many credible witnesses, and I myself have seen soldiers fire at people who are nowhere near and have nothing to do with any stone-throwing. And even when the soldiers have the right to shoot on grounds of defense, they are obliged to use the minimum of force and in a strictly proportionate way."

B'Tselem is concerned about the even more severe crowd control methods being employed by the IDF.

An Israeli journalist was recently shot in the chest with a rubber-coated steel bullet (marble-sized metal ball covered in 0.5mm of rubber) when the soldiers knew full well the target was a journalist. Towards the end of last year the IDF began once again to use Ruger rifles, which use .22 caliber ammunition, against unarmed protestors.

"We have written a letter to the judge advocate general (JAG) protesting and questioning the use of Ruger rifles," said Michaeli.

According to B'Tselem, back in 2001 then JAG Major-General Menachem Finkelstein had ordered that use of the Ruger rifle be stopped. The decision followed the killing of several children in the Gaza Strip by Ruger rifle fire, and an order by the Central Command to cease using the rifle. The order came after it was found that soldiers often used the rifle against demonstrators without justification.

Furthermore, Israeli soldiers are using live ammunition against protestors, contrary to IDF laws of engagement.

Although Anderson's case made international headlines because of his status as a foreigner, four Palestinians were killed by the IDF in the village of Ni'ilin last year.

Ahmed Mousa, 10, was shot dead with live ammunition in July last year. The following day Yousef Amira, 17, was left brain-dead, and died a week later after he too had been shot in the head with rubber-coated steel bullets.

Arafat Rateb Khawaje, 22, was shot in the back with live ammunition in December. The same day Mohammed Khawaje, 20, was also shot in the head with live ammunition. He died three days later.

The villagers of Ni'ilin and their supporters have been protesting weekly against the confiscation of their land by Israeli authorities for expansion of nearby Israeli settlements, and against the separation barrier.

The separation barrier, which slices through the village, divides Palestinian farmers from their land. It was deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.

(Inter Press Service)

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Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.

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