Making a Stink

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

"A terrible stench - the smell of a rotting, dead animal," says left-wing activist Dr. David Nir in disgust. For over three years he has been participating in protests against the separation fence, but he wasn't prepared for this: Three weeks ago, at a demonstration in the West Bank village of Na'alin, he personally experienced the debut of Boash - the Skunk - a new method of dispersing demonstrations, developed by the Israel Police.

"We are very experienced, very familiar with the rubber bullets, the tear-gas grenades and the water hoses, but suddenly two Border Policemen arrived with strange packs on their backs and began to spray demonstrators with a liquid," says Nir. "It was terrible. Some people got completely drenched. Fortunately, I managed to stay out of range and did not get too much of it, but the smell stuck to me, too. It was absorbed into my skin. It was really unpleasant. I couldn't stand the stench; you deserve a gold medal for putting up with that smell.

"A week after the demonstration in Na'alin, a white truck arrived at a demonstration in Bil'in," Nir continues. "It began approaching and we tried to keep our distance." The truck stopped near the fence, "and then we heard the motor working harder in order to create condensed air for operating the Skunk cannon. And then it came: Strong bursts of a foul-smelling spray were showered on us, directly hitting those who didn't move away, at up to a 30- to 50-meter radius. Because the wind was with the cannon, most of us were enveloped in vapors of stench that penetrated our lungs. On the way to Tel Aviv we drove with open windows, but we were unable to get rid of the smell even when we sprayed ourselves with deodorant. There are no words to describe it; it's the worst odor imaginable. It's an experience equal to jumping headfirst into a sewer. The Palestinians simply call it 'shit.'"

"The Border Police introduced the Skunk - a new tool in the service of the police, which will cause every demonstrator to flee for his life because of the terrible stench," the Israel Police Web site proudly declared on August 17, about a week after it was first tried out.

Meanwhile, at the Beit Shemesh police station the architects of the smelly new product are satisfied with the minor chaos created by their invention. Maj. Gen. Yaki Azulai of the Israel Police Operations Division, who heads the unit for countering terror and public disturbances, says that development of the new system began three years ago: "Our goal was to create a better means for helping the police during mass demonstrations. The Israel Police is constantly examining means that it can use; sometimes we can find what we want in the market, and sometimes we have to develop things on our own."

Over the years, hundreds of proposals for developing non-lethal weapons have been considered by the police. After the events of October 2000, in which 13 Arab Israelis were killed by live police fire, the effort to integrate such weapons into the system increased. Just last week the Israel Police once again published an international tender for "devices in the course of development or original ideas for development of less lethal weaponry."

Now the Skunk has become the new hope of the Border Policemen stationed along the route of the fence. "We consider it a new and effective deterrent force," says Azulai. "Until now, for demonstrations on the seam line the police used mainly pepper gas, water cannons and mounted police, but we were looking for less lethal means. The Skunk was born out of a need for a means that would avoid harming the demonstrators insofar as possible, which would limit the damage and the contact between demonstrators and policemen. We have no intention of harming anyone, the police respect the right to demonstrate, but we are in charge of maintaining public order. We intervene in demonstrations that get out of control, as in the case of Na'alin and Bil'in, where demonstrators are systematically attempting to damage the fence or mechanical equipment on the site."

David Ben Harosh, head of the department of technological development at the police, spearheaded the Skunk project. His department, with a staff of 18, most of them engineers, is based in the national headquarters in Ramle, and "handles all the various fields of technology in the police force," he explains. "Every invention and introduction of technological means in the Israel Police passes through us. We are involved in the areas of intelligence, traffic and law enforcement, optics, ammunition, weapons and the development of non-lethal weapons for dispersing demonstrations. In that specific area, most of the ideas that come up disappear along the way, during the first stages of development."


Ben Harosh: "We have to meet legal and health standards, and that's not easy. In the case of the Skunk, for example, I knew from the beginning that if I didn't meet the specifications for non-lethal weapons completely, I wouldn't succeed in carrying out the project. During the initial stage I couldn't prove that it met all the medical criteria. There have been many attempts worldwide to create such systems, in Israel as well. The Technion [Israel Institute of Technology] tried, as did the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Center for Nuclear Research at Nahal Sorek. They all failed. The mistake they all made was that they relied on chemical substances, and no medical authority would approve the spraying of such a liquid against demonstrators."

Ben Harosh said he had an entirely different approach: "I created a liquid from only natural organic substances, which when combined produced the unique smell. I looked for a substance that came from 'green' agriculture, in particular. Along the way I smelled a large number of odors, and in the end I found a particular one and began to investigate it. I arrived at the lab that produces this substance and together we began to develop the basic ingredients of the Skunk. For two years we took apart the substance and in a process of trial and error, arrived at the new substance."

The use of organic substances also had budgetary consequences that were liable to interfere with development, Ben Harosh notes. "We created an organic substance with a short life span - only a few months. Decisions regarding such matters as availability of the substance affect the costs of production, which will not be low, but the effectiveness in my opinion is more important than calculating the expense. [It's priced by liter], and each container holds 4,500 liters. [So it's] not cheap. But we have something to be proud of: The Israel Police is the only police force in the world that has succeeded in breaking the barrier and meeting all the required criteria for creating such a system. I'm sure that it will become a hit worldwide; there's a very great demand for this type of device."

What is the liquid composed of?

"The formula is secret and unique, but I can say that the dominant components are yeast and protein."

A health drink?

"You can drink it, and you would definitely have a great protein drink. The only problem is that it has a very powerful stench."

Will the Skunk also be used at demonstrations within the Green Line?

"Possibly. The Skunk was not developed for Bil'in and Na'alin. It will be stored in every police district and will be ready for use. But at the moment some technical and operational problems haven't been solved yet. We have two problems: First, we have learned that it is impossible to store the substance in the stations. The Skunk smells up the entire station even though it's in containers. The second issue is that we haven't registered a patent for it as yet. At present, negotiations are being conducted with the partner firm that created the liquid with us. The plan is for it to be the supplier, and we will benefit from a considerable discount."

Symbolic dimension

Neutralizing the horrible smell of the Skunk has become the unavoidable obsession of the Bil'in and Na'alin demonstrators.

"A few days after the first use of the Skunk, there were already all kinds of 'urban legends' about how to deal with this unusual smell," says Kobi Snitz, a professor of mathematics at the Technion and an activist in Anarchists Against the Wall. "I've heard about many attempts by people to remove the bad smell. Among the methods were rinsing with vinegar and rubbing the skin with wet salt. The most effective method, which I discovered, is immersion in sea water. Half an hour in the sea managed to achieve for me what innumerable showers and soaps failed to do."

But there were also more unusual attempts. Ahad Huja, 52, a father of three and an activist in the Al Mubadara-Palestinian National Initiative, a political movement that favors democratization of the Palestinian Authority, decided in desperation to wash himself with chlorine. The Skunk had hit him in his village of Na'alin.

"When I approached one of the policemen to tell him that we are adults who intended to hold a quiet, peaceful demonstration, he began to spray me with the substance," Huja recounts. "I have never in my life smelled such a terrible smell. It was very humiliating, I was unable to get rid of the smell. I immediately went home, took off my clothes and showered. But that didn't help at all. The entire house was filled with the smell. My wife was cooking at the time and the stench got into the food, stuck to the walls. The children didn't want to eat. After several showers I had no choice, so I tried to clean my body with chlorine. But that didn't work either. Then I tried to shower again with hot water. Nothing. The smell stayed on me. For a week when I went outside everyone smelled my stench from a distance."

Dr. Ilan Shalif, a psychologist from Tel Aviv, was also surprised when the foul odor stuck to the walls of his shower.

"I was hit in the back during one of the demonstrations. At first I didn't think anything of it. I thought a shower was no big deal," he says. "Today, anyone who is familiar with the Skunk will avoid it like fire. I began by laundering my clothes twice. After the second shower, I heard that salt can help, so in the following showers I mixed salt with soap. It helped, but it was hard for me to get rid of the smell in my hair, in which more of the substance had apparently been absorbed. I didn't fight the vestiges of the smell; they slowly evaporated and passed. What's interesting is that my shower stall continued to stink for days. It was strange."

"It may be legal, but it stinks," adds Sarit Michaeli, the head of public relations at the B'Tselem human rights organization. "The fact that they spray people with such a liquid on a Friday raises questions: Would they do the same thing to settlers on a Friday? I find that hard to believe. I don't think it should be done to anyone, but the limited use of the Skunk against Palestinians and left-wing activists is something that should be recorded. In my opinion, there is a strong and disturbing symbolic dimension to this. Mainly because until today the Skunk has been used primarily against nonviolent groups of people, who did not clash with anyone and were very far away from the fence. So why was it necessary to spray them - in order to dirty them? To punish them? I think that the use of the Skunk contains a very humiliating element - they are marking you. The spray creates a new dimension of humiliation that did not exist before at demonstrations."

A laboratory of experimentation - that is how Snitz describes the villages of Bil'in and Na'alin.

"On the one hand the Skunk really did surprise us to a great degree, but on the other hand I was not surprised when a new weapon was directed against us at demonstrations," he says. "Bil'in and Na'alin have turned into a place for experimentation for the Israeli security forces. The demonstrators have become guinea pigs for various weapons. During the past six months they tried sponge bullets that are fired from short range, salt bullets that are very painful when they come into contact with blood, pepper gas, and even a new device called Tza'aka (Scream). This is actually a large loudspeaker that sits on a truck and emits a dissonant and deafening sound. It penetrates your brain."

But the police were not satisfied with the Scream and it did not return to the hilltops of the West Bank. "And that's part of the issue," adds Snitz. "All these attempts remain attempts, but there is no substitute for the 'daily bread' of the Border Police: gas and rubber bullets."

No major effect

"As much as they praise themselves for developing the new, non-lethal devices, the demonstrations do not become less lethal," continues Snitz, "they still fire rubber bullets indiscriminately at demonstrators. The attempt to present a picture as though the Skunk is a more humane means is absurd. After experiencing the way the Border Police handle things, I don't feel safer thanks to the Skunk."

"In Bil'in and Na'alin, there were two monitored exercises," says Ben Harosh in response. "I was there. I accompanied the experiment. All the professionals accompanied it. After each spraying an observation of the area was conducted, to check if there were casualties, to see how the demonstrators reacted. But we knew exactly how they would react because we tried the substance first of all on ourselves. I tried it on myself: You can ask my wife and children, they didn't like the idea very much. In addition, we tried the substance on a large array of policemen. The Skunk was checked and approved by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, strict tests were conducted on the substance to check for poisons and it was found to not be harmful to human beings. The use was approved by the chief medical officer of the Israel Police, after testing of all the parameters, the risks and the dangers anticipated during operational use on human beings."

Ben Harosh claims that using the Skunk in Bil'in and Na'alin was as an alternative to rubber bullets. "What I saw is what I wanted to see," he notes. "The Skunk worked and the soldiers stood behind it, they didn't fire a single rubber bullet during the entire demonstration. After the first use, most of the demonstrators left the area and streamed into the village. They fled in panic. And that's the success, the deterrence. In the final analysis, with all their ideology, they don't want to stink. It was a success, it created a safety zone between the policemen and the demonstrators, and the moment we saw that the demonstration had been dispersed, we stopped the spraying."

But in spite of Ben Harosh's declarations, his new invention will not affect the demonstrations in the West Bank, say some. Indeed, the demonstrators have already discovered simple evasion tactics.

"We've learned to keep our distance from the Skunk," says Nir. "The Skunk is a deterrent at certain moments when one arrives at the demonstration, but in principle it won't make much of a difference. The truck moves slowly so that it is always possible to maintain a reasonable distance from it. The only change that has taken place is that now we cover ourselves with large plastic bags, and we even thought of bringing umbrellas or raincoats to the demonstrations. In the final analysis, the introduction of the Skunk to the front line of the police forces does not change the story. Everything will continue as usual. The Skunk only places the occupation in an absurd light - with the amount of money and effort invested in all kinds of pathetic means of policing. It's nonsense to think that this substance will overcome anyone's ideology. It's only another slight diversion from the main issue: our protest against the occupation. Only another pathetic reminder, if anyone could forget it, of the stench of occupation."W



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