Shot on both sides in the West Bank

How many training sessions have you been in where you’ve heard the phrase “You can die doing this”?

Me neither, until I visited the Palestinian West Bank as a solidarity activist in 2012.

In a bland hotel room in Ramallah, the ‘capital’ of the West Bank (while Jerusalem lies behind the Wall), I heard this phrase during a session called 'hopes and fears', on the violence we might face from the Israeli army. We were sitting around a table covered with spent cartridges, used stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets. 

The training went on to describe some of the precautions to take (“turn your back if they’re firing rubber-coated bullets, so they won’t hit you in the face - that can kill you. But look at the soldiers if they’re firing tear gas, so you can see where it’s going to land”).

I never quite worked out which way to face when they’re firing both at once…

Amnesty’s new report details why it’s perfectly sensible to have a few fears when attending one of the many regular protests in the West Bank. In the last three years, hundreds of people and dozens of children seriously injured by live ammunition; more than 8,000 people (including 1,500 children) injured by other means, including rubber-coated bullets and tear gas canisters. Worst of all, 22 civilians were killed last year alone, four of them children.

And yet the protests continue, week after week. Protests against the Wall that cuts people off from land they themselves own, protests against illegal settlements that steal yet more land and water resources, protests against road closures, protests against checkpoints…indeed protests against all the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank that’s been going on for almost 50 years.

Amnesty has detailed numerous of these violations, and done so time and time again. For a round-up see ‘Blind to Violations, Deaf to Obligations’ from last year. The clue’s in the title…

Of course, no-one’s saying that no Israeli soldiers have been injured in the West Bank in recent years. Two soldiers were killed in late 2013 (though not through policing the kinds of Palestinian protests detailed in the Amnesty report).

The report (p 8) makes clear however that stone-throwing (the typical justification for the Israeli military opening fire) “in practice…poses little or no serious risk to Israeli soldiers, who are generally too far away for the stone throwers to have any chance of hitting them and are well protected, and has no more than an irritant value”.

But back to those protests. Of course the Israeli military have rules they follow when dealing with demonstrations, right? Well, according to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, yes. For example, the military should only fire rubber-coated metal bullets from 50 metres or more, at the legs, and not at women or children. Have a look at this video from 27 December 2013 to see how well the Palestinian human rights activist Manal Tamimi from the village of Nabi Saleh found this rule was being followed…

Amnesty’s report details another rule of engagement frequently broken - the rule about not firing tear gas canisters directly at protesters. The report’s cover photo - of Mustafa Tamimi, 28-year-old Nabi Saleh resident, falling to the ground after being shot in the face with a tear gas canister in December 2011- tells you all you need to know about distances, trajectories, intent. Page 42 goes into the details (warning – extremely graphic photo).

Despite clear video evidence of wrongdoing, the investigation into Mustafa Tamimi’s killing concluded that the Israeli military had “decided to close the case without any disciplinary or criminal consequences”. A familiar story – see also the cases of Rushdi Tamimi, 31, also of Nabi Saleh, shot in the back with live ammunition in November 2012. Or Bassem Abu Rahmeh 30, of nearby Bil’in, killed with a tear gas canister to the chest in April 2009. Bassem’s story is immortalised in the Oscar-nominated ‘Five Broken Cameras’. There are many more examples…

So yes, back to the training. Hopes and fears? Well, more Palestinians were killed in the West Bank last year than in the previous two years combined. My fear is that it’s getting worse - impunity for past crimes encouraging further trigger-happy behaviour.

And hopes? Can we hope that the Israeli government will implement Amnesty’s recommendations? Rein in their trigger-happy military forces? Or can we expect only denials, talk of “difficult operating environments” and an attempt to describe every Palestinian teenager who dares throw a stone at a distant Israeli armoured vehicle as a “violent rioter”? I’ll leave you to guess…

'F.F.' is a full-time Amnesty staffer and schools' speaker, and recently spent several months in the West Bank as an international observer. We haven't used their name for their safety.

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