Palestinian Casualties Rise as Israel Police Up Usage of Foam-tipped Bullets

Increase in the number of anti-riot bullets fired matches growing violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Israel has investigated 15 complaints into injuries, many of them children, but no policemen have been indicted.

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Salah Sleiman.
Salah Sleiman.Credit: Alex Levac
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Dozens of Palestinians, including many children, have been injured by foam-tipped bullets since 2014. The Justice Ministry has investigated 15 complaints into injuries, but no policemen have been indicted as yet – despite orders that place restrictions on how the bullets are fired.

Over the past two years, 57,000 foam-tipped bullets have been fired, most of them in East Jerusalem.

Figures on the numbers of foam-tipped bullets fired were provided by the police to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. ACRI made the request under the Freedom of Information Law.

The figures show a rise in the number of such bullets fired, matching the rise in violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country. In 2014, more than 35,000 foam-tipped bullets were fired. Last year, the figure was some 22,000. By comparison, 3,608 foam-tipped bullets were fired in 2011, 5,589 in 2012 and 7,162 in 2014.

The figures also show a change from the softer, blue-foam bullets to the heavier and more dangerous black-tipped bullets. Until 2014, no black-tipped bullets were used at all.

After the black bullets came into service in 2014, half of all foam-tipped bullets fired were of that variety. Last year, though, 94 percent of all foam-tipped bullets fired were black-tipped.

Salah Sleiman, from the East Jerusalem village of Isawiyah, was 11 and a half last November. One morning, school was canceled because so few pupils had shown up. Like every other day at that time, the village was seething, with clashes between young stone-throwers and police. When Sleiman returned home, his mother sent him to the store to buy vegetables.

On his way back from the store, he said, he wanted to cross the road when he got too close to a violent demonstration. He gestured to a policeman that he wanted to cross, but the policeman allegedly shot a foam-tipped bullet at him and missed. Sleiman was shot again when he tried to cross the street again.

The bullet entered his right eye socket. He lost the use of his right eye and a few weeks later lost the sight in his left eye as well. He was also injured elsewhere on his face and has undergone eight operations.

Two months ago, attorney Aryeh Avitan, representing the family, received word from the Justice Ministry department that investigates police officers that the case had been closed. “They can’t say who fired the bullet and said the case was closed because, as far as they understand it, there had been riots in the village that day,” Avitan explained.

Foam-tipped bullets are nonlethal projectiles made of plastic with a compressed foam tip, used mainly by police as an antiriot weapon.

In 2014, after complaints from police over a lack of effectiveness of the blue-tipped bullets, they were replaced by the black-tipped type. It was after this that complaints began to accumulate of significant injuries from these bullets.

According to figures collected by ACRI, 30 people have sustained significant injuries from the black-tipped bullets to date. However, with one exception, none of the injured have been summoned to give testimony.

An adult struck by such a projectile can expect to sustain a painful but superficial injury. In some cases, it may cause a slight bone fracture. But for children or the elderly, the injury can be very serious.

Sponge-tipped bullets. Credit: Emil Salman

Among those injured are Abdel Rahman Abu Rali, 5, from Isawiyah, who was struck in the groin; and Mohammad Obeid, 6, and Yahiyah al-Amudi, 10, who both lost an eye. Mohammed Sinokrot, from Wadi Joz, was struck in the head by a foam-tipped bullet in August 2014 and died a few days later. And two months ago, Ahmad Abu Hummus, 12, also from Isawiyah, was struck in the head by a foam-tipped bullet and suffered skull fractures and severe brain damage. His condition has improved in recent weeks and he has begun communicating with his family. “He is speaking, thank God, but he does not know anyone. He is walking but not well, but at least there is improvement,” said his father, Tawfik.

“The police, like any citizen, are authorized to respond with all means at their disposal to prevent the danger,” Commander Haim Blumenfeld – an aide to the police chief – wrote to ACRI attorney Anne Suciu.

However, at least in some cases it is suspected that the bullets were fired in breach of police orders that the bullets “are not to be fired at the elderly, children or women who can clearly be seen to be pregnant,” and that “the weapon is to be aimed at the lower part of the rioter’s body.”

The police told Haaretz that the weapon is quite accurate and experienced personnel – only experienced personnel are allowed to use foam-tipped bullets – would not have difficulty aiming at the lower body.

Of the 15 complaints investigated, four have been closed. Of the rest, including the death of Sinokrot and the serious injury sustained by Abu Hummus, a decision has not yet been made.

According to ACRI and attorneys representing the injured, the investigations are proceeding slowly. The Justice Ministry unit said that in a number of cases it was impossible to know who fired the shot and that because of the circumstances it cannot be determined that the shooter committed a criminal act.

Avitan has appealed the decision to close the Sleiman case and has filed a civil suit against the state. “The boy is begging to know who shot him; he doesn’t understand,” said Avitan, adding that he brought witnesses to the investigators but they insisted the shooters could not be identified.

Attorney Eitay Mack is representing Abu Hummus, who was shot on his balcony. “In one case, I brought the medic who treated the man on the balcony and they refused to question him,” said Mack.

Twelve year old Ahmad Abu Hummus in hospital after being hit by at least one sponge-tipped bullet.Credit: Courtesy of the family

The Jerusalem police responded that two policemen had been injured during riots at the time in Isawiyah, and “means were used against rioters who were endangering lives.”

The Justice Department unit defended its record. “The unit’s figures show that in every case of suspicion of a criminal act, the unit works robustly to reach the truth, and in suitable cases to call upon criminal or disciplinary charges police who have committed wrongdoing.

“However, in many cases – especially in operational actions to disperse riots – it often turns out that the police acted lawfully,” it added. The unit’s statement noted that several of the cases were still under investigation.

The police, meanwhile, said it “acts to contain dangerous disturbances of the peace, while conducting dialogue with local leaderships to calm the situation. However, in violent disturbances that endanger the lives of police officers, including the throwing of stones and firecrackers directly at the police, although the police have the lawful right to self-defense and the use of lethal weapons, the police use various nonlethal weapons, including foam-tipped bullets, in a reasonable and proportional manner.

An Israeli border policeman aims his weapon during clashes with Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, October 4, 2015. Credit: Reuters

“The police act and will continue to act with determination to protect the lives and safety of the entire public,” they added.

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