Police Worry Or Commission Will Ban Rubber' Bullets

Not only has the projectile been used too often, it has been used improperly.

Since the Or commission began hearings into the rioting last October during which police shot dead 13 Israeli Arab citizens, the panel members, led by Justice Theodor Or, have made clear they have mounting concern about the rubber-coated steel bullets that were the main riot control measure used by police.

Criticism of the bullets is now so intense that senior police officers are worried that one of the commission's recommendations will be a ban on their use - or at the least placed under a new set of restrictions that would in effect remove them from the police arsenal.

The commission has several times taken note that police forces elsewhere in the world, including Northern Ireland and the United States have prohibited the use of this ammunition.

With his characteristic attention to detail, Or summoned a long list of experts to testify about the ammunition and interrogated them at length on how it was developed, its characteristics, and in particular, the disadvantages of using the bullets.

There are plenty of serious disadvantages, judging by Or's questions. On a number of occasions, Or expressed his opinion that the ammunition is not accurate enough to use against a single person in a crowd of demonstrators, and is much too dangerous to use against a group. If police regard the rubber-coated bullets as the equivalent of live ammunition, and insist on using them under the same circumstances in which it would use live ammo, he asked several times, why are the rubber-coated bullets necessary?

The problems with the bullets need a brief reference to their historical context and how they were developed. Eleven years ago, a junior officer in the Border Patrol named Mickey Levy was a company commander stationed in Jerusalem with the rank of chief superintendent. Before that he had been an armaments officer in the police's elite anti-terrorist unit. Over the years he moved up the ranks and is now Jerusalem District Police Chief, with the rank of commander.

Trained as a machinist, Levy had looked for a way to transform the rubber bullet that during the 1980s police had used in massive quantities to disperse crowds, into a non-lethal projectile accurate enough to be used against an individual.

In those days the police and army had rather complex equipment for launching rubber bullets - they were packaged like a grenade that carried a large number of hard rubber balls. This was fired from an anti-tank grenade launcher mounted on an M-16. Israel Military Industries (IMI) developed the grenades, which were dubbed "Model 75".

IMI's ammo experts tried all sorts of alternatives, including packing the grenades with gravel and chick peas, which are far less lethal, but the final decision was that the regulation ammo would be made of small metal balls covered with hard rubber.

Levy tried to find a solution to the army's needs, particularly with demonstrators in the Jerusalem area. He told the panel that he was trying to find "a means much less lethal than live bullets or the plastic bullets used at the time."

Using his skills as a machinist, he made an attachment for an M-16 that held two rubber bullets without any metal core of the same type that were being used to spray demonstrators. One of his assistance fired at him from a range of 60 meters and hit him in the buttocks. Levy couldn't sit down for two weeks.

First `tampons'

Levy gave his prototype to the laboratories at IMI. They developed a rubber bullet dubbed Romah. They supplied rolls (`tampons' in army slang) that included 4 balls without any metal core. The IDF tried them in Nablus and elsewhere in the territories and concluded the new ammo was not powerful enough to cause harm, but also was not effective at the optimal ranges of 40-60 meters, the typical distance of stone-throwers. At the IDF's request, the number of balls was reduced to three, and the balls were given metal cores weighing 16 grams.

Thus arrived the rubber-coated bullets that in the 1990s were the main ammunition used by the army and the police against Arab demonstrators. The minimum range set by the army for shooting those new bullets was 40 meters.

According to the testimony by experts from both IMI and the IDF's armaments corps, that range was based on two criteria. The first was a calculated formula that showed hitting an object at a force of more than 30 joules (the unit of kinetic energy) per square centimeter could be potentially fatal. That formula, said the experts, was adopted from "the international literature." But according to expert witnesses, it was never independently tested in Israel.

The second criterion was a test on plywood. In the armaments community they use a very imprecise measurement to determine this - if a rubber bullet, or any other bullet, pierces a piece of plywood of certain thickness, it will also penetrate a body. All witnesses have made clear the test is not precise. Some said the plywood has to be 4 centimeters thick, other said 8 centimeters. One said that it all depends on the plywood - if it's tightly packed, wet or dry.

In fact, during the ten years since Levy volunteered his bottom as the acid test of his ammunition, neither the IDF nor the police ever tested the Israeli-developed projectile on any real ammunition on real living tissue or even on simulations of live tissue. Justice Or, hearing the testimony by the experts could only say that "not only is the whole business imprecise, I'd say it's nonsensical."

Not all the experts favored the metal cores in the bullets. Ephraim Ya'ari, for example, a 33-year veteran of IMI, said he was against the rubber-coated metal bullets and had warned that they could cause "irreparable damage" to human beings at longer ranges than 40 meters, especially to sensitive organs.

Both the army and police knew the ammunition was, to say the least, imprecise. A wide range of factors affect that accuracy, ranging from weather conditions to the bullet's natural tendency to fall at the rate of 20 centimeters every 20 meters, and the elliptic spread as the three balls fly through the air.

Estimating problem

By 40 meters, the balls have spread out by about 58 centimeters, say the police standing orders about the bullets that were introduced in March after the first evidence started to turn embarrassing for the police. In effect, at 40 meters, for a shot to be accurate, the shooter has to aim as much as 40 centimeters higher than the target, and if the target is standing next to someone else, the odds that the other person will be hit are about the same as the odds the target will be.

Justice Or pointed out the problems posed for policeman by the need to make these complex calculations. He asked some of the senior officers who appeared before the panel if they could accurately judge 40 meters or 60 meters. Not all said yes. And they all admitted the estimation issue is a problem.

"Estimates are a problem," said Northern District Commander Ya'acov Borovsky. "We did an exercise, and it's difficult." Or pressed him. "What do you want a policeman in the field to do? Should he calculate while he is firing or while he is measuring the distance and when should he remember the dispersion, and gravity? What do you want from the policeman? What do you want to do with this?"

Yet despite all the problems, the Or panel found that the rubber-coated bullets were the most widely used ammunition during the October demonstrations - and even before those riots. In the 1998 Umm el Fahm riot commanders complained that police were using the ammunition too much.

Not only was the bullet used often - it was used improperly. The commission has testimony and evidence, including videotapes, showing that police used it from too close ranges, aiming up and down hills (forbidden due to the gravity problem and the difficulty of estimating range), and in at least three cases, and possibly four, rubber-coated bullets killed.

There have been some changes - and even some improvements - since the October riots. The police decided to cut back on the amount of rubber-coated bullets by about 52 percent, while doubling the amount of tear gas issued to units. The rules for using rubber-coated bullets have also been severely tightened.

But already in the October riots, the official police rules for using the bullets were set by "four aggregated conditions," as defined by then national chief Yehuda Wilk - fear for loss of life; use of all other available non-lethal means to prevent endangering public welfare; guaranteeing that the use of the rubber bullets would not endanger innocent civilians; and use of rubber-coated bullets only by those trained for their use, and under supervision of an officer.

It is known to the Or commission that the police did not stick to those rules during last October's riots. Now the rules are tougher and the bullets can only be used in very specific circumstances and only with the expressed order of an officer.

Meanwhile the police are looking for an alternative to disperse demonstrations, but still hasn't found one. And senior officers, aware that the Or commission won't be able to ignore the problems of the rubber-coated bullets, know that at the very least, the commission will want much more stringent rules for the use of the bullets, and it's equally possible they'll ban them outright.