The riots around Israel during last month’s fighting in the Gaza Strip have revived the use by police of one of the most violent and intimidating tools they have at their disposal: batons. Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has ordered the police’s operations branch to ease the conditions for using batons, a tool that has rarely been seen in recent years.
Until now, police have been able to use batons in any instance of “disruption of public order or disobedience,” at the instruction of the field commander. They have also used them at times when they were not confronting violence, as happened recently at Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of the capital and in other places.
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Batons were seen during the disturbances that took place in Bnei Brak during the coronavirus crisis, shortly after Shabtai assumed his position. They were used against ultra-Orthodox protesters demonstrating against the new route of Jerusalem’s light rail, too. But in the last few weeks, police have begun to use batons more frequently, including to make arrests.
Until recently, police regulations stated that the use of a baton was allowed only in “level 4” cases, which include “public disturbances and disobeying police orders while acting with harsh and severe violence” – for example, throwing rocks at police officers. Even in these cases, the use of the batons required approval of the district commander. Now, under Shabtai’s new orders, they can even be used in cases that are “level 2,” with the approval of the “commander of the incident,” who could very well be a junior officer. The detailed rules for using batons in those cases where permitted are classified.
The police consider the baton to be a non-lethal option, to be used primarily as a deterrent. “Sometimes you see police officers who find themselves facing a crowd with a stun grenade in hand, which is a mistake,” said a senior officer. “If they were holding a baton in their hand, the crowd would back off. That’s the job of the police, to deter.” But the reality in the field is different. In many cases, police use the batons aggressively and violently.
A police source admitted to Haaretz that the very decision to equip police officers with batons could be a catalyst for their overuse. “A cop who is already carrying a baton – it makes it more readily available for use and many police officers use it unnecessarily,” he said.
The use of batons has become particularly common in Jerusalem. Several residents of East Jerusalem have reported Border Police officers and riot police patrolling the area with batons, and using them to make arrests that had nothing to do with rioting. Mohammed Hamid, 19, was beaten by Border Police officers last week at Damascus Gate. He claims that he was just trying to walk through the area. “The policeman immediately pulled out a baton from behind him and started to hit me,” he said. “There was no warning, [he went] straight for my legs. I yelled at him, but that made him even more annoyed. I’ve never seen cops use batons like that so easily, for no real reason. It is a very dangerous and painful tool.”
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The police said in response that during the rioting that took place last month, the place of the baton as a tool to disperse riots was reevaluated. “The police baton constitutes part of the basket of measures at the force’s disposal to disperse riots. These means are used to avoid resorting to other means, that have inherently more potential to do harm.”