Amnesty International have today released a new report entitled, ‘Trigger-happy: Israel’s use of excessive force in the West Bank’ that accuses both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the Israeli police of ‘a callous disregard for human life’ and ‘use of unnecessary, arbitrary and brutal force’.
Almost inevitably, the report has been dismissed as anti-Israeli propaganda by some. Gerald Steinberg for example, the president of NGO Monitor, said Amnesty’s accusations were “reckless, blatantly biased, and reflect the lack of a credible research fact-finding methodology”.
Much of Amnesty International’s report however chimes all too closely with my own personal experience of being the West Bank in 2012.
For example, Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International said that “The frequency and persistence of arbitrary and abusive force against peaceful protesters in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and police officers – and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators – suggests that it is carried out as a matter of policy.”
This assertion fits closely with my experience of monitoring near weekly demonstrations in the West Bank where I witnessed a consistent level and pattern of the use of force.
Often violence at protests would start by a minority of Palestinians throwing stones, although on a small number of occasions the violence would be initiated by the Israeli army. Following the stone throwing however there would follow an intensifying use of force which has to be understood as disproportionate. This force, at the demonstrations I witnessed, included firing large metal tear gas canisters directly at crowds (which on one occasion I witnessed nearly killed a 17 year old boy), firing rubber coated bullets directly at protestors (they’re designed to be fired to rebound off the floor into protestors legs, not directly at people) and on one especially horrific occasion the use of dogs to attack a protestor (you can watch the video of the dog attack here).
Only on one occasion did I see Palestinians use anything other than broken stones as weapons. On this occasion they filled glass bottles with paint to throw at the windscreens of the IDF jeeps.
In the whole time I was in the West Bank I witnessed dozens of arrests of Palestinians – many of which seemed to me as arbitrary – but, to my knowledge, heard of no arrests or disciplinary processes initiated against Israeli soldiers for acting against IHL, Israeli law or their own regulations.
Even in the incident of the dog attack, which in the best case scenario shows huge professional incompetence and an inability to control a dog, there was no repercussions for any individual. The IDF however did announce a change in policy in using dogs at protests. To my knowledge they have not used dogs since.
The report makes the important point that, “several victims were shot in the back suggesting that they were targeted as they tried to flee and posed no genuine threat to the lives of members of Israeli forces”.
This once again fits with my experience of protests. Soldiers would often wait for up to 30 minutes whilst being pelted with stones (the time when they are most at danger). At some point, the strategic choosing of which was often unclear to me, a response would ensue. This response would climax in its most disproportionate and violent as the demonstration turned and ran away from the front line between the soldiers and the protests.
It is hard for me to conclude anything other than this use of force accumulated in an effort to try and make people too scared to come back and continue protesting.
Gerald Steinberg describes the report as ‘blatantly biased’. This, in my experience, is simply not true. Reading the summary of the report I was struck by the harrowing accuracy of the report and how closely it chimed with my experiences.