Last week, the roof of Ma’alot Hatorah Yeshiva, which is associated with the so-called Jerusalem Faction – a radical Ashkenazi Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, group in Jerusalem – was full of clothing hung out there by the students. “The place smells like a carcass, you can’t go near it,” one of the students says, adding that he is still recovering from the aftermath of a demonstration against the draft of Haredim in central Jerusalem.
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The stench was caused by a weapon called the “Skunk,” a liquid compound that has become one of the main means used in recent weeks by the police against the religious demonstrators, who are protesting the detention of draft-dodging members of their community. The smell of the spray can stick to the body for days.
“It’s horrific, inhuman, it’s not clear how it’s possible to use it against human beings,” says Shlomo Frankel, one of the demonstrators. “Police brutality has now been joined by this stuff, which makes it impossible to breathe – it simply doesn’t come off your clothes or your skin.”
Although it first became operational a decade ago, the Skunk has become increasingly popular of late. Initially it was employed by the Israel Defense Forces and the Border Police, and its overpowering smell was experienced mainly by Palestinians over the Green Line. It debuted in 2008 at demonstrations against the occupation in the West Bank villages of Bil’in and Nil’in, after earning the approval of the IDF’s chief medical officer.
About three years ago, use of the organic compound began within Israel proper, too, at first to disperse demonstrations in Arab locales. In Taibeh, for example, police sprayed it from water cannons on protesters who were opposed to the evacuation of illegal structures in the town. Now the Skunk is being let loose by the police against Haredi demonstrators in the heart of Jerusalem.
Apart from the smell, the Skunk can pose a physical danger. Haredi protesters say the police make violent use of it, spraying the liquid directly on them from close quarters. Yet, police procedures state explicitly, “In any event, it is not to be sprayed directly at demonstrators’ heads for fear of [causing] traumatic injury in sensitive areas as a result of the intensity of the water cannon.” The force of the stream allows it to reach individuals from a distance of dozens of meters.
“It’s not only humiliating and searing – they also spray it in a direct trajectory,” said one Jerusalem Faction leader. “They are violent toward us in every possible way.”
Footage of recent protests shot by Haredi participants supports the allegations of direct-trajectory use of the Skunk, usually at a range of several dozen meters. In one clip, a passerby, an East Jerusalem woman, is seen being hurtled into the air from the powerful, high-speed spray of the liquid as the police tried to disperse Orthodox demonstrators near the Central Bus Station at the entrance to Jerusalem.
A spokesperson for the police, asked for comment, told Haaretz that the use of the Skunk was authorized by the necessary professional authorities, that it is not dangerous to humans and that it is intended to preclude the use of other means of crowd dispersal.
The Skunk issue joins other serious allegations by the Jerusalem Faction concerning the violence being used against the group in their demonstrations and during their attempts to block city streets. After almost every large-scale protest, a group of Haredi complainants arrives at the Jerusalem offices of the Justice Ministry’s unit for the investigation of police officers. Since these protests started, in the wake of the IDF’s arrests of Haredim for failing to seek a draft exemption or otherwise avoiding induction, the unit has launched 30 investigations against policemen for using inordinate violence; 14 officers have been questioned under caution. One indictment has been filed against a policewoman for using violence against a demonstrator, and an officer has faced a disciplinary hearing.
At one time the police made do with spraying powerful bursts of plain water at demonstrators. In recent years, substances manufactured at a factory near Beit Shemesh have been added to the water, turning it into a yellowish, sticky and putrid concoction. According to police documents and the manufacturer of the liquid, Odortec, it consists of organic substances that have undergone fermentation.
For the police, the rotten-smelling spray has no few advantages. It usually renders unnecessary the use of harsher crowd-dispersal means, which can cause more serious injuries and also pose a danger to the forces on the scene. The Skunk does its work far from the police officers, and its major environmental damage lies in its smell. In addition, the IDF’s long-term operational experience with the Skunk in the territories led to the conclusion that its use shortens the duration of demonstrations significantly.
Still, the Skunk is liable to cause physical harm, such as intense nausea, vomiting and skin rashes, in addition to any injury resulting from the powerful force of the spray. Examinations by police and army medical teams in the past also indicated that the excessive coughing caused by exposure can result in suffocation. Accordingly, those who are on the dispensing side of the Skunk are required to wear a mouth-and-nose mask with a filter.
Police began using the weapon to quell violent demonstrations in East Jerusalem in 2016. Local residents alleged that the policemen were deliberately spraying the substance toward schools and houses, and that the rotten smell could linger for more than a week. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, having received reports about allergic reactions to the substance and about a pregnant woman who was hospitalized after exposure, requested that the attorney general order the police to desist from using the Skunk. As of this writing no such order has been issued.
According to the operational procedures stipulated by national police headquarters, the Skunk may be used only in open areas and with the authorization of a commanding officer with the rank of brigadier general. Moreover, it must be used “in a controlled manner, and the responsible commanding officer will stop its use immediately as soon as it is no longer needed.” There is also an explicit prohibition against spraying the liquid directly on demonstrators: “Use of the Skunk will be carried out by an indirect method of wetting/spraying.” This clause in the regulations elaborates, “The material will be sprayed above the heads of the demonstrators (like rain) or, alternatively, at the legs and below.”
“No kind of rain – they spray it on us in direct trajectory, on purpose,” says Eliahu Tetro, a 22-year-old yeshiva student who took part in one of the demonstrations last week. “Whoever it hits is flung a few meters back and falls down. I took it directly in the back a few times. I’m not even talking about the horrible smell, which is indescribable, but there’s no doubt that they are trying to injure you deliberately. It leaves red marks on the body, and of course, if you fall down as a result, you get beaten. Despite that, we take blows, we take arrests and we are ready to take the Skunk, too – this is an ideological battle and we are ready to suffer everything.”
Frankel relates that his teeth were broken in a demonstration when the powerful spray from the Skunk struck the poster he was carrying, causing it to slam into his mouth. “When it hits you, it feels like a knife is stabbing you,” he says. “I weigh 110 kilos [240 pounds], and when I sat on the street, the spray lifted me off the ground a few times. I’m not surprised that it’s an Israeli invention – Israelis are skilled at doing harm and at coming up with violent instruments.”
The demonstrators’ complaints are backed up in part by ACRI attorney Ann Sucio. “The use of this method is disproportionate in character and is intended solely to humiliate people. It is an unfitting means to disperse demonstrations,” she says. “It works by making people smell, vomit and walk around with a feeling of disgust. Why do they add the smell element if not to make people feel terrible and humiliate them? Its use in an urban setting is also problematic and can cause bodily harm.”
One group of people who are pleased at the use of the Skunk are its developers in the Odortec company. “There’s possibly a little pride involved,” says Haim Davidian, one of the firm’s owners, adding, “The fact is that as of now more than 100,000 people have been exposed to the material and there hasn’t been a single medical complaint. Obviously it’s not pleasant, but after three or four showers with soap, it goes away.”
In Davidian’s view, “It’s a lot less terrible than taking a rubber bullet or inhaling tear gas. I hear that there are complaints that it’s humiliating – but, better to be humiliated than dead. Human rights organizations should say thank you and not attack the product, because it means that fewer people get hurt in demonstrations.”
A spokesperson for the Israel Police made the following statement to Haaretz: “The police use a range of means to disperse demonstrations, according to a hierarchy of types of disorderly conduct. The Skunk is one of those means, and it has been found effective. It was used only after the authorization of IDF and police experts. The Skunk liquid is a compound of water and organic materials. It does not constitute any danger whatsoever to people or to the environment, and the purpose of its use is precisely to minimize the use of other means, and to reduce the friction between police forces and the disrupters of order.
“Use of the Skunk comes only after other attempts to disperse the disorderly conduct, and is intended solely to preserve public law and order and to put a stop to the blockage of streets, violent riots and disruption of traffic – which are actually what’s dangerous, violent and unacceptable, and disrupt the routine of normative citizens who want to maintain a regular routine of life.”