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From the field

1 March 2009: B'Tselem demands that judge advocate general prohibit use of Ruger rifle to disperse demonstrators

B'Tselem recently wrote to the judge advocate general, demanding that he order the army to cease using Ruger rifles to disperse demonstrators.

In recent weeks, the army has again been employing Ruger rifles, which use 22-caliber live bullets, in the course of demonstrations. The gunfire has resulted in injury to many Palestinians in the West Bank and to at least one foreign national. B'Tselem knows of injury to Palestinians from the villages of Ni'lin, Bil'in, Jayyus, Bitunya, and Budrus. Most of the victims were struck in the arms or legs and suffered light to moderate injury.

In 2001, Maj.-Gen. Menachem Finkelstein, then judge advocate general, ordered that use of the Ruger rifle be stopped. The decision followed the killing of several children in the Gaza Strip by Ruger-rifle fire, and an order by OC Central Command to cease using the rifle, which was given after finding that soldiers often used it without justification against demonstrators. On 27 December 2001, Ha'aretz quoted a senior military official as saying that “the mistake was that the Ruger came to be seen as a means to disperse demonstrators, contrary to its original designation as a weapon like any other.”

On 10 January 2009, following the renewed use of the Ruger in demonstrations, Ha'aretz reported the comments of an “IDF official”, who said that the Ruger causes less harm, and is less lethal, than “rubber bullets.”/>

Renewing use of the Ruger for demonstrations on the grounds that it is less dangerous than rubber-coated metal bullets is outrageous. Firing live ammunition at demonstrators who are in no way endangering the lives of soldiers is unlawful. Such gunfire is permissible only when there is an immediate and real threat to life, and when no other means are available to cope with the threat.

Furthermore, in recent years, many Palestinians have been killed or wounded by rubber-coated metal bullets, in many cases by uncontrolled and illegal firing of such bullets by soldiers and police. The illegal use includes, for example, firing from very close range, firing at children, and firing at the upper part of the body - all violations of the Open Fire Regulations.

These practices have become commonplace among security forces for a number of reasons. First, security forces are almost never held accountable for their illegal use of rubber-coated metal bullets, even when the result is death or serious injury. Second, the unlawful use of such bullets is often carried out following the commanders' instructions or approval. Third, it appears that security forces have come to view such bullets as not lethal or harmful, so that it is unnecessary to limit their use.

These same factors can be applied to the Ruger rifle, which poses a greater danger to human life. The rifle's live ammunition has already led to injuries, and the danger inherent in expanded use of it is therefore much greater. In addition, given that the army considers the Ruger a means to disperse demonstrators, there is cause for real concern that, as has occurred with rubber-coated metal bullets, soldiers will come to think of the Ruger as a non-lethal weapon, resulting in its increased use.

The only way to prevent serious injury and deaths in the framework of policing tasks is to completely ban the use of live fire, including gunfire from Ruger rifles, at unarmed demonstrators who are not threatening soldiers' lives.