Under Fire in the West Bank
‘I won’t say we changed the open-fire regulations, but we’ve taken a slightly tougher approach with people around here,’ Brigadier General Tamir Yadai, the Israeli army commander in the West Bank, said last month. ‘In places where we used to fire tear-gas or rubber bullets, we now fire Ruger bullets and sometimes live bullets.’ Yadai was talking to residents of Halamish, an Israeli settlement, who had complained about the worsening security situation.
Halamish is opposite the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, in the centre of the West Bank, about twelve miles from Ramallah. As in many other Palestinian villages throughout the Occupied Territories, there are demonstrations there every Friday against the unlawful acquisition of Palestinian land. Nabi Saleh’s water supply has been taken over by settlers from Halamish, and there’s an Israeli military watchtower on the way in to the village. The demonstrations have been broken up by ‘crowd dispersal methods’: tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, stun grenades and skunk water (a putrid-smelling liquid shot out of a high-powered hose from a moving vehicle; the stench stays behind for weeks). These weapons are classed as non-lethal, although demonstrators have been killed by both tear gas and rubber bullets.
The use of live ammunition against stone-throwers and unarmed protesters is strictly prohibited by Israeli regulations, unless there is ‘immediate, mortal danger’. Between 2005 and 2013, at least 46 Palestinian stone-throwers were killed by live ammunition. Two Palestinian teenagers, who posed no threat to Israeli soldiers, were shot dead at a protest on Nakba Day last year. I was at that demonstration, and the crack of live fire could intermittently be heard, even before the boys were killed. But these incidents were sporadic and apparently isolated. Now, however, the use of live ammunition – in these instances, small .22 bullets – is becoming standard practice in demonstrations throughout the West Bank, as documented by B'Tselem and the photographer Haim Schwarczenberg, and confirmed by Brigadier General Yadai’s remarks.
The .22 bullets – reintroduced in 2008 after a seven year ban – are less dangerous than regular ammunition, but they can still cause death or severe injury. On 18 November 2014, Nariman Tamimi – a prominent activist in Nabi Saleh, along with her husband, Bassem, and their children – was shot in the leg at close range by a .22 bullet. She didn’t pose any ‘immediate, mortal danger’ to Israeli troops, and was targeted from the back of a Jeep. Two months later she is still on crutches. Her family continues to demonstrate.
At the demonstration I went to on 16 January, two Israeli army snipers took position on the bank at the side of the road that the protesters march down on their way to the watchtower. The usual contingent of Israeli Border Police was waiting for us and fired large quantities of tear gas our way. Most protesters were holding signs and singing; a few were throwing stones in the direction of the Border Police, but nothing resembling a mortal threat. After less than fifteen minutes one of the snipers shot a live bullet at a group of unarmed protesters. Bassem Tamimi pulled everyone back. On 23 January army snipers again fired live ammunition, even after many of us had scattered following two salvoes of ferociously strong tear gas launched by the Border Police.
The same thing happens every week throughout the West Bank. The illegal use of lethal force is woefully under-reported in the Israeli media. The few stories that appear are generally prefaced by the words 'according to Palestinian sources', so many Israeli readers won’t believe them. The occupier doesn’t value the occupied’s word any more than their history or their lives. Yet the demonstrations continue. Every Friday, the residents of Nabi Saleh sing in Arabic: ‘Rise, arise, raise your voice: whoever’s screaming does not die.’