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US-made tear gas an increasing and fatal component of popular protests

Residents of Nabi Saleh in the West Bank have been demonstrating, each week for the past two years, against the slow encroachment on their land by Israeli settlers. Gathering in the village centre on Friday afternoons, villagers along with Israeli and international activists attempt to march, under the watchful eye of soldiers, to a disputed agricultural spring which was confiscated recently by Israeli settlers.

Often protesters never even reach the edge of the village; crowd-control measures by the military regularly include barrages of tear gas and rubber bullets. Palestinian villagers claim that hundreds of protesters have been injured, some seriously, in the Nabi Saleh demonstrations. But no one had been killed there – until last week.

The death of 28-year-old Mustafa Tamimi may seem to have little in common with the more numerous deaths of protesters in Cairo over the past few days. Indeed the demonstrations are different from each other in many ways. But in protests from Tunis to Cairo to little Nabi Saleh, the use of tear gas by authorities, and the increasing number of related fatalities, has become a common thread in recent months.

Mr Tamimi’s injuries occurred amid a fairly common occurrence in the West Bank: protesters were throwing stones at armoured Israeli vehicles. As the demonstration slowed towards the end of the day, one Israeli jeep stopped as it was making its way out of the village. The vehicle’s back door opened wide enough for a tear-gas launcher, known to Israeli soldiers as a “ringo”, to fire a single canister of the gas.

Mr Tamimi, who was standing three metres behind the jeep, was hit directly in the face by the canister. The next morning he was pronounced dead in an Israeli hospital near Tel Aviv. Mustafa Tamimi was the 20th Palestinian protester killed by the Israeli army in the last eight years of unarmed West Bank demonstrations, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Many of the deaths have resulted from the negligent and unlawful practices of Israeli soldiers.

Israeli army regulations stipulate that soldiers are not allowed to fire tear-gas canisters directly at protesters, since doing so can turn sublethal crowd-control devices into deadly instruments of war. There are also allegations that protesters in Cairo were killed just by inhaling the gas. Palestinians have opened court cases over violations of the Israeli regulation, but no case has resulted in the prosecution of soldiers. To make the situation more frustrating for Palestinians, Israeli soldiers often demonstrate extreme restraint when dealing with Jewish settlers who riot whenever an illegal outpost draws the army’s attention.

In 2009, Bassem Abu Rahman was killed instantly when an Israeli soldier fired a tear gas-canister directly at him from close range during a demonstration against the separation barrier in the village of Bil’in.

Then, last January, Jawahar Abu Rahmah, Bassem’s sister, was killed in the same village after prolonged exposure to tear gas used to disperse demonstrators. And an activist from the United States, Tristan Anderson, was left paralysed after he was hit directly with a canister during a demonstration in the village of Ni’ilin in 2008.

US companies like the Pennsylvania based Combined Systems Inc (CSI) are among the primary suppliers of tear gas used in the West Bank. After Jawahar Abu Rahmah died as a result of breathing CSI tear gas in Bil’in, a number of pro-Palestinian advocacy groups staged protests and launched a boycott of the company. CSI officials have remained silent on the use of their product by Israeli forces.

One important consequence of this year’s Arab revolutions has been renewed interest in the use of US-made tear gas to control social protests across the Middle East. A number of US tear gas manufacturers have ramped up production, while profits have been soaring as governments from Bahrain to Egypt demand more and more tear gas to suppress political revolt.

The result has been deadly. In January, the 32-year-old French photographer Lucas Mebrouk Dolega was killed by a tear-gas canister fired at close range by Tunisian police. And hundreds of protesters in Egypt have claimed that tear gas canisters made by CSI were fired at them, often at close range, by security forces. According to the leading Egyptian daily Al Ahram, port officials in Suez recently protested against unloading a shipment of CSI-manufactured tear gas destined for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in Cairo.

Amnesty International has joined the port officials’ protest, issuing a sharply worded statement singling out the use of CSI tear gas in Egypt, and calling on the US government to stop approving sales of the product to Egypt because of its misuse against protesters. Tear gas has become the main instrument by which authoritarian regimes control social protests that challenge their power in the Middle East. Used tear-gas canisters litter the streets of Cairo and Tunis. Identical canisters allow the Israeli army to crush unarmed demonstrations throughout the West Bank, without attracting widespread condemnation from the international community. What seems certain is that until tear gas is viewed as the deadly weapon it can be, authoritarian governments will continue to use it with impunity.

This piece was originally published in The National on 17 December 2011

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    1. Mikesailor

      When money and power are involved, both morality and justice take a back seat. The US is now the preeminent arms dealer to the world. Profits over people always preveils with the assistance of a more-than-compliant media.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lauren

      Please…. this is not the USA alone. Israel & the US are partners in crime. The IDF has been training American cops… specifically NY cops. Thanks to Israeli training, the level of violence against peaceful protesters is outrageous. One Marine got a canister to the head just for standing… no provacation whatsoever.
      So, we are suffering here… we are all Palestinans now thanks to Israel and the US war mongers.
      The peace loving Americans like me don’t like that made in America arms are killing innocent civilians worldwide. Most Americans want nothing but peace… Israel and the US government want a never ending war.

      Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      If tear gas kills, why not dispense with it and use live bullets instead? Or are live bullets more expensive than tear gas? I’ve also been wondering how much water skunk uses and whose water it is.

      Reply to Comment
    4. AYLA

      ARISTEIDES–are you there? The company producing the tear gas is in Pennsylvania; how bad do things have to get before you move?

      Reply to Comment
    5. AYLA

      Not only is tear gas deadly, it also serves as a tragically successful deterrent. I have to believe that many more of us would be out there, protesting in the West Bank, if not for the IDFs violent response.
      Thank you, Joseph, for exposing the source (on one level. so many sources…).

      Reply to Comment
    6. directrob

      Although not 100% safe and nasty, I do not think CS gas “kills”. However shooting short range at protesters with 200g metal objects is very dangerous (and expensive at 20$ each retail). There are other CTS/CSI 40mm toys for insecure boys for that.
      What I found interesting is this warning when buying them online:
      “Export of the commodities described herein is strictly prohibited without a valid export license issued by the U.S. Department of State, Office of Defense Trade Controls, prescribed in the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR)”

      Reply to Comment
    7. Mikesailor

      In the first place, tear gas (CS) can kill, especially if used in an enclosed space or on people who have breathing problems such as asthma. Also, some have severe allergic reactions to the chemical, although the ‘authorities’ would never let anyone know.
      My question has been, why do you need a gun to fire a tear gas canister, especially when used against unarmed protesters? Sorry people in ‘security’ but I consider stone throwing as basically being unarmed. Why not good old fashioned tear gas grenades which are thrown instead of fired at high velocity? Doesn’t the IDF have soldiers who can throw as well as Palestinians? And the chances of ‘accidents’ such as that which killed Tammimi would be much reduced. Or is the idea to terrorize the protesters with the spectre of imminent death or maiming?

      Reply to Comment
    8. directrob

      At youtube you can see how the Israeli use the gas at Nabi Saleh. Sometimes it is simply thrown, sometime a car mounted “venom” unit is used, sometimes it is shot with a rifle and sometimes with a 6 shot 40mm gun.
      In all cases the videos are excellent training videos to illustrate improper and unsafe use of the gear. If British police would use this kind of force against demonstrations of 50 persons people would not be amused.

      Reply to Comment
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      Reply to Comment