Violating orders: Police pepper-spray non-violent civilians
On Friday, 22 February 2013, the weekly demonstration in the village of a-Nabi Saleh, Ramallah District, West Bank, took place. These weekly demonstrations have been held in the village since December 2009 to protest both the Israeli occupation as well as the takeover by settlers of the nearby al-Qus spring.
Bilal a-Tamimi lives in a-Nabi Saleh and is a volunteer photographer with the B’Tselem camera project. He was filming the demonstration as he has done for the past three years. In his testimony to a B’Tselem field researcher Iyad Hadad, he recounted the following events:
About ten Border policemen were pursuing the demonstrators. I followed them with the camera. I didn’t interfere, I only filmed. I was wearing a vest marked “Press” to make it clear that I’m a photographer. I have experience in how to behave and how to film this type of events according to the military’s specifications. I’ve been filming for over three years and I know what’s permitted and what’s not. Suddenly one of the policemen came over to me and ordered me to stop filming. I argued with him, saying that there’s no reason not to allow filming. He asked his officer if he could remove me from the area. I know the officer from previous demonstrations and he knows me. The officer told the other policemen: “Let him be.”
The policemen let me be and went down into the valley. Then another group of policemen arrived on the scene. One of them came over to me. He was holding a pepper-spray canister and started shouting at me in Hebrew. He ordered me to move away from the troops and said, “You can film, but don’t come near the troops.” I told him: “Did you hear what the officer said?” And then, without any warning, he pepper-sprayed my eyes and face. It stung and smarted, but I managed to keep the camera rolling. Another policeman came over and threw a stun grenade in my direction. Then the policemen moved away.
This case is not unusual. Over the past three years, B’Tselem has documented 18 incidents in which demonstrators and photographers reported the use of pepper-spray in contravention of official police orders, with police pepper-spraying unarmed, non-violent civilians. Five of the cases were documented on video.
Pepper spray is one of the crowd control weapons used by Israeli security forces in the Occupied Territories and has been used by Israel Police since 2007. In the West Bank it is used by the Israeli Border Police and by Israel Police’s Special Patrol Unit. Pepper spray is a concentrated extract of capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot peppers, sprayed from an aerosol canister. The effects of exposure to pepper spray are instantaneous: Sharp pain,a burning sensation in the face and eyes, involuntarily closing of the eyes, temporary blindness, a severe stinging sensation on the skin, and difficulty breathing. The effects
last from 15 minutes to an hour, and the pain gradually subsides. Although pepper spray is commonly used worldwide as a non-lethal weapon, there have been rare cases of severe, enduring effects, and it is considered hazardous to people with breathing difficulties, particularly asthma patients.
Police procedure details the circumstances and restrictions that apply to the use of pepper spray. Among its provisions:
- Pepper spray shall be used only after careful consideration of all the circumstances indicates that the suspect cannot be detained or neutralized in some other, milder way, and when physical contact with the suspect is liable to cause greater injury to the police officer or the suspect than the use of the spray.
- Pepper spray may be used only against a person suspected of having attacked, or of meaning to attack, a police officer or civilian, or against a suspect violently resisting arrest or trying to flee. Even then, pepper spray may be used only after the suspect has been warned that continued violent conduct will result in the use of pepper spray by the police offcer. The police procedure stresses that pepper spray must not be used against a suspect passively resisting arrest.
- Pepper spray may be used only when there are no civilians nearby who may be hit by it.
- Pepper spray may not be used at a distance of less than 1.5 meters.
- Use of the spray must be stopped immediately when resistance ceases, and the suspect must be allowed to rinse the affected area with water as soon as possible. Adequate ventilation must be provided as well as medical treatment if requested, or if physical distress continues for more than 30 minutes after use of the spray.
The official police procedure apparently strikes an appropriate balance between law enforcement considerations and safety considerations. However, on-site observations by B’Tselem along with video footage and testimony by demonstrators who have been sprayed with pepper spray indicate that police use the spray without warning, in complete contravention of regulations. Namely, the spray is often directed at people who are in a group, at much closer range than 1.5 meters, or at people who have exhibited no violent behavior. In many cases, demonstrators have been sprayed while standing near policemen or arguing with them. These people were not arrested, there was no apparent intention of arresting them nor were they warned they might be sprayed with pepper spray. Moreover, in some cases, police were filmed spraying demonstrators passively resisting arrest.
Following are several cases in which B’Tselem staff and B’Tselem volunteer photographers recorded police using pepper spray in violation of police procedure:
Since 2010, B’Tselem has conveyed to the Department for Investigation of Police (DIP) seven complaints alleging police officers’ illegal use of pepper spray against Palestinian civilians. Three of the cases were recorded on video.
The DIP decided not to undertake an investigation in five of the complaints. In the two cases where an investigation was undertaken, the DIP concluded its investigation by closing the file, without taking any steps against the suspects.
Media reports indicate that, in at least in one case, a disciplinary committee found a policeman guilty of illegal use of pepper spray against a civilian, during a confrontation at the Yitzhar settlement between settlers and the police, in April 2010.