Sponge rounds, rubber bullets, and tear gas — how Israel’s non-lethal munitions can kill

Israel/Palestine
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It was the middle of a cold October night in 2015 when an Israeli army jeep came driving through Aida refugee camp blaring a message through its loudspeaker.

“People of Aida refugee camp, we are the occupation forces,” the message began in Arabic. “If you throw stones, we will hit you with gas until you all die. The children, the youth, the old people – you will all die. We won’t leave any of you alive … Go home or we will gas you until you die. Your families, your children, everyone – we will kill you.”

The Israeli government condemned the message as the act of a single soldier, but Palestinians in Aida, knowing the lethal potential of tear gas, took the threat seriously.

The next day an eight-month-old baby was killed by tear gas inhalation during clashes in a neighboring village.

While Palestinian protesters are generally armed with rocks and a few sporadic Molotov cocktails, Israeli forces are armed with some of the world’s leading crowd control weapons.

Live bullets larger than .22 caliber are the only ammunitions used during clashes that are considered lethal by Israeli standards, but the classifications of tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, sponge rounds and .22 caliber live bullets as non-lethal, is, according to medical professionals, misleading.

Mondoweiss spoke with Doctor Nasser al-Jaberi, the Director of the Emergency Room Department at the West Bank’s Arab Society Hospital, to get a better idea of what these weapons are capable of.

“[They] can absolutely kill,” al-Jaberi said. “Rocks are no real threat against an armed military. When you ask if a rock could injure or kill a soldier wearing a helmet, a bullet proof vest, and army-grade clothing, it is hard to imagine, but a protester dying of tear gas inhalation is very common.”

al-Jaberi told Mondoweiss that in certain circumstances nearly every non-lethal weapon used by Israel can, and at some point has, killed.

We asked al-Jaberi to break it down for us, munition-by-munition.

Sponge rounds

Sponge-tipped bullets. (Photo: Emil Salman via Haaretz)

Sponge rounds, also called sponge grenades or sponge-tipped bullets, are used often by Israeli forces when clashes are happening near Israeli Jewish communities, or when the wind is too strong for tear gas to work well.

At clashes it is easy to tell when Israeli forces are using the rounds.

Youth in the streets are more careful about coming out in the open. They hide behind concrete blocks on the side of the road. In the middle of street wooden boards and other barriers are perched up on light poles and metal dumpsters are pushed out into the road, with youth popping up from behind them just long enough to pop off a rock from their slingshots.

The barriers just get in the way if there is a lot of tear gas being fired and are not sufficient to stop live bullets.

Sponge rounds are designed to be shot over a long distance (the required distance changes depending on the precise version of the ammunition), and only at the lower extremities. When used from a proper distance the harmless-looking rounds cause massive black and blue bruises — when shot at a close distance they can easily stop a heart or crack a skull.

Two types of sponge rounds are used by Israeli forces. The blue-tipped rounds are made up of an aluminum base, plastic base and dense sponge. They can cause serious damage on their own, but in 2015 a new black-tipped sponge round was introduced. The black-tipped rounds are heavier, with more dangerous tips created from synthetic rubber.

“If shot at a very close distance, either sponge round can cause fractures to the skull, which could lead to death,” al-Jaberi said. “They can also be deadly if shot at the chest, eye or neck in some cases. They are certainly less deadly than rubber-coated bullets or tear gas, but that does not mean they cannot cause death or serious injury.”

Sixteen-year-old Muhammad Abdelmajid Sunukrut was shot in the head from around 30 feet away with a sponge round in August 2014. After struggling for a week in the hospital Sunukrut succumbed to his wounds. In July 2016, 10-year-old Muhyee al-Din Tabakhi was hit in the chest with a sponge round, causing internal bleeding that led to the child’s death.

Still, the rounds are considered non-lethal.

A Palestinian man shows foam-tipped bullets reportedly used by Israeli riot police outside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound after clashes erupted at the compound between Palestinians and Israeli police on June 26, 2016 during the holy month of Ramadan. (Photo: Mahfouz Abu Turk/ APA Images)

Rubber-coated steel bullets

Rubber-coated steel bullets are another form of what is, according to al-Jaberi, wrongly considered a non-lethal method of crowd control used by Israeli forces during clashes.

In Arabic sponge rounds and rubber-coated steel bullets go by the same name: “matahta.” While the word and the defense against them (makeshift barriers in the streets) are the same, youth take rubber-coated steel bullets much more seriously when being used in the field by Israeli forces.

Examples of coated steel bullets used by Israeli forces. One is a steel ball covered in a very thin, hard, material, more like plastic. The other is a softer rubber cylinder shape, but also has a steel core. Both are typically fired from an adapter fitted to the barrel of an M16 assault rifle. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

“A rubber-coated bullet is actually just a metallic bullet covered in a small layer of plastic or rubber, so it is still a bullet,” al-Jaberi said. “We have seen many skull fractures here at the ER from these so-called rubber bullets, and a skull fracture can cause internal bleeding, as well as contusions to the brain. If it is from a close distance in the head, eye, neck or chest these ammunitions have every likelihood of being deadly.”

Al-Jaberi explained that while a real bullet is more likely to make a clean entry and exit, the nature of a rubber-bullet means the entry point is much more likely to be torn open jaggedly, and if shot at a close distance, the bullet more likely to embed itself into the body.

These days Mohammed al-Azza, an award-winning Palestinian photojournalist from the occupied West Bank, never ventures to cover clashes without a bulletproof vest and helmet. In 2013 doctors told the young journalist he could have died if the rubber-coated steel bullet shot at his face while covering clashes had hit him just a centimeter closer to his eye.

He was shot from the second floor balcony, by soldiers positioned on the street just in front of him — much too close to be within protocol of any use of the munition.

The bullet fractured his upper cheek bone. It had to be surgically removed and the journalist has had to undergo multiple other surgeries to reconstruct his face and eye socket. Today there is only a small scar left on his upper cheekbone, but a quarter of his facial skeleton is made up of metal and plastic.

A myriad of other cases documented by rights groups illustrate just how dangerous the ammunition can be, including the 2016 incident in which 12-year-old Mohiyeh al-Tabakhi was shot and killed by Israeli forces after a rubber-coated steel bullet hit the child in the chest, causing him to go into cardiac arrest and die.

Israeli rights group B’Tselem has documented dozens of other Palestinians killed by rubber-coated steel bullets. According to B’Tselem, the Israeli State Attorney’s Office has stated these deaths are “unavoidable mistakes.”

Countless others, like 10-year-old Yahiya al-Amudi, have been shot in the eyes by the ammunition, leaving them partially blinded.

.22 Caliber Bullets

There is no question that a .22 caliber bullet, also known as a tu-tu bullet, is considered live fire — it is — but Israeli forces still consider the ammunition a “non-lethal” crowd control method.

The small bullets are less powerful than larger cartridges, but they carry a deadly punch, just like any other bullet, particularly when the .22 calibers are hollow-tip bullets, also known as expanding, dum-dum, exploding or fragmented bullets.

According to al-Jaberi, the majority of the bullet wounds he treats are from these types of expanding bullets — the use of which is considered a war crime under international law.

“Most of the bullet wounds we treat here contain fragmented bullets. When they enter the skin they explode into many fragments. If this reaches the bones we call it comminuted fractures,” he said, explaining that these kind of fractures mean the bone was hit at high velocity and fractured into more than two pieces. “We have had some of these cases where the bullet fragments sliced arteries and that is a very serious injury that could definitely kill in certain circumstances.”

In 1981 John Hinckley Jr. shot then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan with a .22 caliber loaded with expanding bullets. While Reagan spent two weeks in the hospital recovering, the former president’s White House Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head and suffered permanent brain damage that left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Israeli authorities deny the use of expanding bullets in their arsenal.

After the first year of the Second Palestinian Intifada, the head of the security department in the Operations Directorate of the Israeli military announced that the .22 bullet was too deadly to use as a form of crowd control and discontinued its use between the years of 2001 and 2008, according to B’Tselem.

The .22’s were eventually brought back into use, and by 2015 B’Tselem found that there was “a steady erosion in the restrictions on firing… leading to ever greater use of this weapon,” which it said was “misleadingly portrayed as a non-lethal measure.”

“The indisputable facts are that we are dealing with a lethal weapon, which the Israeli authorities falsely present as a reasonable tool to employ in dealing with demonstrations,” the report added.

In the first ten months of 2015, four Palestinians were shot and killed by .22 calibers, including 13-year-old Abdelrahman Obeidallah, who was shot with a .22 caliber bullet straight to the heart right after school let out.

Israeli forces said the shooter had not breached protocol in using the .22 as a non-lethal munition at the time of the 13-year-old’s death. According to Israeli officials, the soldier was shooting for the legs of another youth, when the bullet ricocheted up and hit Abdelrahman, showing that even when used according to Israel’s protocol, the bullets can be deadly.

Palestinians try to avoid tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers during clashes which erupted after the funeral of Palestinian Mustafa Tamimi in the West Bank town of Nabi Saleh, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011. (Photo: Issam Rimawi/APA Images)

Tear gas

More than 1,000 Palestinians were injured during the two weeks of daily clashes that followed the al-Aqsa mosque crisis last month, according to the Red Crescent. Most of those injuries were caused by severe tear gas inhalation.

Tear gas is actually not a gas at all, it is a powder mixed with a liquid substance that when released as an arsenal, resembles gaseous clouds. It also affects much more than just the eyes and tear ducts. Tear gas works by irritating mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. Touching your face, eyes, or trying to use water to wash it off only intensifies the symptoms.

The fact that it is a solid means the “gas” eventually settles on surfaces around the area it was administered. In the occupied West Bank, some areas are tear gassed nearly daily, meaning surfaces like balconies and window ledges, for instance can become caked in the substance. If someone unknowingly touches a railing, then wipes their face or other sensitive areas of the skin, the concentrated powder causes chemical burns.

“I have had many patients come in with serious respiratory distress from tear gas,” al-Jaberi said. “In particular circumstances tear gas can easily kill someone — for example if someone has a pre-existing condition, or if the patient is a small child, a very old person, and even in some cases, healthy people.”

Earlier this year 18-month-old Abdelrahman Barghouti died from asphyxiation after tear gas was shot by Israeli forces into the child’s family home.

Al-Jaberi’s most recent serious patient suffering from tear gas exposure had to be hospitalized for a week before being released because of respiratory damage triggered by the gas.

Even among healthy individuals, concentrated exposure to tear gas causes sharp pain in the chest and the sensation of suffocation.

Palestinian doctors, medics and nurses, as well as the general populace, know very well how to deal with the immediate effects of tear gas exposure, but al-Jaberi is concerned with the unknown effects it could trigger over time.

“I can’t give any specific evidence on the long term effects of the gas until there are serious research studies done about it,” he said. “Unfortunately there have not been many studies on the case, but we should be monitoring the people who are exposed to this gas on a daily basis, like those who live in the refugee camps, because I think it is logical to say that these people would have a much higher likelihood of having serious respiratory problems when compared to people not frequently exposed to the gas. We can feel certain there are side effects, but without studies it is hard to say for sure.”

Tear gas canisters

Tear gas canisters collected at the end of Bil’in’s tenth anniversary protest, February 27, 2015. (Photo: Allison Deger)

In addition to the gas itself, the canisters used to administer tear gas are shot at high velocity and can do serious damage if the canister hits vulnerable parts of the body.

“I’ve had many patients injured from the canisters. One of my patients was hit in the head with a gas canister at short range and it caused a fracture to the skull and damage to the bone around the eye,” al-Jaberi said.

The cases of tear gas killing, both from the gas itself and direct contact from the canisters, is well documented.

While Israeli military regulations prohibit firing tear gas directly at people, B’Tselem has extensively documented cases of the practice.

In March 2009 U.S. citizen Tristan Anderson was shot in the head with a tear gas canister and to this day suffers from severe brain damage. A month later, Bassem Abu-Rahmah, from the village of Bil’in, was hit in the chest by a tear gas canister and killed. Bassem’s death was made famous after his killing was featured in the Oscar-nominated film Five Broken Cameras.

The death of Bassem, a beloved and well-known Palestinian activist, was covered by media internationally, but it did not help to mitigate Israel’s use of tear gas against Palestinian protesters.

Two years after Bassem was killed, his sister died due to respiratory failure caused by tear gas inhalation. Eleven months after that Mustafa Tamimi was killed after being hit with a tear gas canister during clashes in Nabi Saleh.

Israeli forces closed both Abu-Rahmah’s and Tamimi’s case files without indictment. B’Tselem condemned the decision, stating that it gave “Israeli soldiers and officers the unequivocal message that, should they kill unarmed civilians, they will not be held accountable.”

“Given this state of affairs, it is hardly surprising that soldiers and Border Police officers continue to shoot tear-gas canisters directly at Palestinians, endangering their lives. Under such circumstances, it is only a matter of time before yet another unarmed Palestinian civilian is killed in this way,” the group said in a 2013 report.

Four years later, injuries and deaths caused by direct contact with tear gas canisters are still common occurrences.

About Sheren Khalel

Sheren Khalel is a freelance multimedia journalist who works out of Israel, Palestine and Jordan. She focuses on human rights, women's issues and the Palestine/Israel conflict. Khalel formerly worked for Ma'an News Agency in Bethlehem, and is currently based in Ramallah and Jerusalem. You can follow her on Twitter at @Sherenk.

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10 Responses

  1. Ossinev
    August 14, 2017, 2:02 pm

    When they are not too busy being most moral and lighting up nations with tear gas and rubber bullets they get alternative kicks by simply locking up Palestinians of all shapes and sizes and ages just for the hell of it. It has become like a daily drug fix for these ugly Fascist goons and their political masters:

    “Palestinian prisoners’ affairs institutions – the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Committee of Prisoners’ Affairs and Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights – issued the following report on 8 July 2017, which indicates that, during the month of July 2017, Israeli authorities arrested (880) individuals from the occupied Palestinian territories, including (144) children, and (18) women.
    According to the monitoring and documentation conducted by the four organizations, Israeli occupation forces arrested 425 Palestinians from Jerusalem, 120 from Hebron and 85 from Nablus. In addition, 49 Palestinians were arrested from Jenin governorate, 47 from Qalqiliya, 45 from Bethlehem, 37 from Ramallah, 36 from Tulkarem, 10 from Tubas, 10 from Jericho, and two from the Gaza Strip.
    The report indicates that the number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails reached 6400 prisoners, including 62 female prisoners, 10 minor girls, approximately 300 children, 450 administrative detainees, one “illegal combatant” and 12 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) members.
    In the month of July, the occupation authorities issued 97 administrative orders, of which 20 were new orders and 77 were issued for prisoners for the second and third time.
    The full report is divided into four sections. The first section provides statistics on the number of arrests made in July; the second section highlights the arrest and detention of PLC members; the third deals with the arrests of Palestinians following Al-Aqsa uprising. Finally, the fourth section deals with the condition of prisoners suffering from psychological illnesses.
    The report also provides legal analysis for the various events covered by the report, in accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The report concludes with a set of conclusions and recommendations.
    The four organizations strongly condemn Israel’s gross and systematic violations of international law, and its disregard for the rights of Palestinian detainees. We also condemn the continuing occupation authorities’ disregard of the legal guarantees provided by international legal regulations, particularly the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners 1955, and other international declarations and conventions guaranteeing the rights of prisoners and detainees.
    The four institutions also call upon the international community to intervene urgently in regard to the fulfillment of its legal and moral obligations towards the population of the occupied Palestinian territories and to take effective measures to compel the occupying state to ensure respect for their basic human rights. We also call upon local, regional and international groups and allies to activate solidarity campaigns with prisoners, with the aim of putting pressure on the occupying state”

    Hopefully Israel`s demise will be slow lingering and very very painful and the remaining small percentage of the truly moral Israeli Jews will have had the opportunity to get out of the Zioland hellhole before the demise.

    Tick tick.

    • eljay
      August 14, 2017, 3:38 pm

      || Ossinev: When they are not too busy being most moral and lighting up nations with tear gas and rubber bullets they get alternative kicks by simply locking up Palestinians of all shapes and sizes and ages just for the hell of it. … ||

      Zionists love to praise Israel as being among the best nations in the world. But they inevitably defend it by comparing it to some of the worst in the world – nations they themselves despise. Go figure.

    • WebSkipper
      August 15, 2017, 9:44 am

      As shown in one of the pictures, the Pennsylvania company CTS manufacturers much of Israel’s munitions, most notably including tear gas canisters.

      “CTS produces a full line of chemical irritant and smoke munitions. The comprehensive line includes grenades, 12gauge, 37mm and 40mm projectiles. These less-lethal options address a wide range of scenarios from assisting tactical teams in displacing or detecting barricaded subjects to aiding riot control units charged with maintaining order in public or correctional environments.”.

      https://www.combinedsystems.com/products/?cid=14

    • Jack Green
      August 16, 2017, 11:31 am

      Ossinev

      Why are you siding with bad people instead of siding with their victims?

    • Jack Green
      August 16, 2017, 11:55 am

      Ossinev

      Israeli firefighters are in Macedonia battling wildfires.
      Israel is sending food to people in Sierra Leone who are suffering from mudslides.
      And you say “Hopefully Israel`s demise will be slow lingering and very very painful.”

      • Mooser
        August 16, 2017, 1:38 pm

        “And you say “Hopefully Israel`s demise will be slow lingering and very very painful.”

        Don’t worry “Jack”! That “slow lingering” demise is only possible if Israel has a way to force Israeli Jews to stay there.

  2. JLewisDickerson
    August 14, 2017, 5:07 pm

    RE: “People of Aida refugee camp, we are the occupation forces . . . If you throw stones, we will hit you with gas until you all die. The children, the youth, the old people – you will all die. We won’t leave any of you alive … Go home or we will gas you until you die. Your families, your children, everyone – we will kill you.” ~ message blared by IDF Jeep through its loudspeaker

    SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL ON THE ART OF USING “POISONED GAS”:

    What about Gandhi’s nemesis, Winston Churchill? Today we only remember his heroic opposition to Nazism. But while he was against gassing and tyranny in Europe, he was passionately in favour of it for “uncivilised” human beings whose riches he wanted to seize. In the 1920s, Iraqis rose up against British imperial rule, and Churchill as Colonial Secretary thought of a good solution: gas them. He wrote: “I do not understand this squeamishness… I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” It would “spread a lively terror”. He was quite clear about why Britain should do this. He explained: “We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world… mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force.”

    SOURCE – http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/06/26/9915

    P.S. OTHER FOND REMEMBRANCES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE (I.E., MORE “BRITISH EMPIRE GAMES”):

    ➤ When Britain lost control of Egypt in 1956, Prime Minister Anthony Eden said he wanted the nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser “destroyed, murdered, I don’t give a damn if there’s anarchy and chaos in Egypt.” Those insolent Arabs, Winston Churchill had urged in 1951, should be driven “into the gutter from which they should never have emerged.”

    SOURCE – http://www.nlpwessex.org/docs/BBCSuez.htm

    ➤ CHURCHILL: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” ~ Winston Churchill deprecating the rights of indigenous Palestinians in an address to the Peel Commission (1937) on a Jewish Homeland in Palestine

    SOURCE – http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill

    • JLewisDickerson
      August 14, 2017, 5:26 pm

      P.P.S. ALSO SEE: “Winston Churchill: the Imperial Monster” | by Michael Dickinson | CounterPunch.org | January 28, 2015

      [EXCERPT] . . . In 1920 Churchill advocated the use of chemical weapons on the “uncooperative Arabs” involved in the Iraqi revolution against British rule.

      “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas,” he declared. “I am strongly in favor of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes. It would spread a lively terror.”

      As Colonial Secretary, it was Churchill who offered the Jews their free ticket to the ‘Promised Land’ of ‘Israel’, although he thought they should not “take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience.” He dismissed the Palestinians already living in the country as “barbaric hoards who ate little but camel dung.”

      Addressing the Peel Commission (1937) on why Britain was justified in deciding the fate of Palestine, Churchill clearly displayed his white supremacist ideology to justify one of the most brutal genocides and mass displacements of people in history, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”:

      “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

      In fact, many of the views Churchill held were virtually Nazi. Apart from his support of hierarchical racism, as Home Minister he had advocated euthanasia and sterilisation of the handicapped. . .

  3. JLewisDickerson
    August 14, 2017, 5:25 pm
  4. Elizabeth Block
    August 15, 2017, 12:22 pm

    The Palestinians won’t be the last ones on the receiving end of this stuff. Our police forces go to Israel to be trained in crowd control, and Israel makes a lot of money selling its security systems.

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