Israel tries new tactics against Palestinian protesters

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It’s the usual Friday afternoon cat-and-mouse dance between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters in this West Bank village.

Young village men, joined by Israeli leftists and international activists, begin blocking roads with boulders and tires; soldiers take up positions at key intersections. Israeli forces fire tear gas canisters; protesters fling rocks.

Before long, the military calls in one of its most dreaded weapons.

A white armored truck rumbles toward the scene. Protesters dive for cover as a small cannon on the vehicle’s roof takes aim and fires — not bullets or tear gas, but a heavy stream of the foulest-smelling liquid imaginable.

Is it the sickly sweet odor of decomposing flesh? A trash dump on a hot day? Vomit? Those who’ve been doused wax on in vain, trying to find a worthy description for the stench that won’t go away, no matter how hard you scrub, for several days.

Israeli soldiers call the truck the Skunk, and they say it has become one of their favorite tools in confronting the rising challenge of West Bank demonstrations.

As Palestinians have reshaped their resistance in recent years from suicide bombings and armed attacks to civil disobedience and nonviolent demonstrations, Israel’s military is grappling with how to alter its tactics as well.

“This is a new trend, and we’re trying to address it in a new way,” said Lt. Col. Eliezer Toledano, operations officer for the Israeli army in the West Bank. “We have to adjust ourselves to the reality today.”

With no suicide attacks or armed clashes last year, he said, one of the main West Bank security threats today is the surge in organized civilian protests. A year ago, there were two such weekly demonstrations in West Bank cities. Now there are at least 10, involving up to 2,000 protesters a week, and the numbers keep rising.

Though often billed as peaceful, the demonstrations can turn violent, and Israeli soldiers have been accused of using guns against unarmed protesters. Two young Palestinian demonstrators were killed in March near Nablus by what Palestinians say were Israeli rifle bullets. The Israelis are investigating whether live rounds were used. But they said this week that they had reprimanded officers involved, saying the incident would not have occurred with better training and supervision.

With the increase in standoffs between armed Israeli soldiers and rock-throwing Palestinians, Israeli officials say, they have been searching for better tools, such as the Skunk, to give troops options for controlling the demonstrations.

“The challenges today are sometimes more of a police challenge rather than a military challenge, so we are trying to react in a police way,” said a top Israeli commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If you take things from your military toolbox and use them for policing, you end up with a bad result.”

As part of their efforts, security forces in Jerusalem now sometimes use so-called sponge bullets, which are sponge-covered plastic projectiles that sting but are less dangerous than rubber-coated bullets, a police spokesman said.

Or there’s the Scream, which emits an ear-piercing noise from a truck loudspeaker, and sound grenades, which make loud noises but cause no damage.

Israelis credit these tools for the reduction in protest-related deaths over the last year even as the number of demonstrations has increased.

Six Palestinians were killed from July 2008 to June 2009, according to Palestinian figures. Over the last year, the figure dropped to two.

Palestinian organizers scoff at the notion that Israeli soldiers are softening their response, saying the military still uses excessive force.

“Nothing has changed,” said Bassim Tamimi, a Nabi Saleh resident who heads the local protest committee. “We see the same violence being used against us.”

In March, a 14-year-old boy from the village was in a coma for a week after being hit in the head with a rubber bullet, Tamimi said. Last week, protesters in two villages were seriously wounded when hit in the head with tear gas canisters, protesters said.

Tamimi accused the army of using its new tools to provoke violence rather than contain it. During a recent protest, he said, soldiers fired the Skunk cannon’s liquid into homes, making them uninhabitable. Another time, they arrested three women from the village, enraging the town’s male leaders, he said.

“They are trying to push us to the other [armed] side of resistance so they can say Palestinians are terrorists again,” Tamimi said. “They are trying to escalate the situation. But we won’t take up arms. We believe in this kind of resistance.”

The military has also been relying more heavily on arrests, both sides say.

Of the more than 300 arrests made during protests since 2005, nearly two-thirds have occurred in the last year, according to figures from protest organizers. In recent months, soldiers have begun conducting nighttime raids of protesters’ homes, a tactic usually reserved for suspected terrorists, protesters complain.

The military is also testing some controversial legal strategies. In Bilin and Niilin, two West Bank villages with long-running weekly protests against Israel’s separation barrier, the military recently decreed that the cities would be designated “closed military zones” from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays.

Under the new rules, anyone present in the area on Fridays, particularly Israelis or foreign activists, can be arrested, regardless of their actions. Critics called it a blatant attempt to use military powers designed for war zones against civilian protests.

Israeli commanders said the new legal strategies were needed because judges demand higher standards of evidence in civilian settings versus combat situations.

“We’d arrest people and they’d be released an hour later,” the commander said.

Now soldiers often carry cameras to catch protesters in the act of throwing rocks or destroying property.

Soldiers expressed mixed feelings about their roles in confronting the demonstrators, questioning whether their training was well suited to the task.

“When you deal with civilians, you lose your sharpness,” said one elite-trained soldier who is more accustomed to combat situations in Lebanon and Gaza. “This is not a soldier’s job.”