At exactly 12:30 A.M. the order was given for the police to move into action. It was issued by the commander of Jerusalem’s Moriah district police department, which is responsible for an area of the city that includes the site of the regular demonstrations opposite the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official residence. The consequences of the order were rather dramatic.
Three water cannons burst into nearby Paris Square, outflanking several hundred people and indiscriminately aiming powerful jets of blue-tinted water at them – including non-violent protesters, members of the media and passersby. Even Border Police on the steps of the adjacent Kings Hotel were hit.
Less lethal means. That’s what the police call the water cannons – mobile equipment that is designed to disperse violent demonstrations. For the time being, they haven’t been lethal, but they absolutely can be dangerous. Several demonstrators fainted from the force of the water on their heads or were left injured and bleeding after falling to the ground.
It now turns out that the police, who recently began deploying the water cannons against those protesting against Netanyahu in Jerusalem, have been violating of their own internal rules, which bar hitting demonstrators’ heads with the jet spray. The rules have only partially been made public and the regulations on their actual use have not been disclosed. But Haaretz has found that what has been made public explicitly states that the jet of water cannot be directed at demonstrators’ heads from close range.
“The spray must not be directed at the head of anyone from less than 25 meters (82 feet) from the front” of the equipment, the rules state, adding that the equipment cannot be used less than 20 meters away under any circumstances. The rules that have been disclosed also state that in any event, “it should not be sprayed directly at the heads of demonstrators due to concern that it would cause traumatic harm in sensitive areas as a result of the force of the jet.”
Police sources have said they make “proportionate and professional” use of the crowd dispersal means at their disposal, but the rules don’t appear to have been given to the people operating the water cannons in recent weeks. In video footage from Thursday’s demonstration, a young man is seen flung backwards by a jet of water directed at his head. There have also been accounts of head injuries from the water cannons.
The young man in the video has been identified as 19-year-old Yonatan Kimel of Tel Aviv, who said he lost consciousness from the force of the water.
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“It was my first demonstration. I saw the water cannon getting closer and it hit me on my right ear. I fell on my head and it opened up and began bleeding. In retrospect, I understood that I had fainted,” he recounted. “When I got up. I got another jet [of water] in the back. I tried to hide but they were spraying at us from everywhere. It was a battlefield. They didn’t attempt to disperse us, but rather to scare us from demonstrating again.”
When he returned home that night, his mother bandaged him and in the morning, he went to the hospital, Kimel said. “From the first jet, my eardrum was punctured, my head was opened up, and I have bruises on my face and body. It really hurt me. The police operation was terrible.”
For Kalanit Sharon, 31, of Tel Aviv, Thursday’s demonstration ended with a punctured eardrum and a swollen face.
“The protest had already ended, and we wanted to leave, but a line of Border Police pushed us. All of a sudden, the water cannons came and one of them opened on me from up close – less than three meters – with only a single car between us,” Sharon said. “It was an insanely powerful jet of water. I was in shock. I lost my balance. I tried to get away with other people, but then this huge jet of water came again, this time at my face. My whole body was stressed. In no way was this a proportionate use. None of us were violent. Why did they use it on us?”
The use of water cannons against protesters wasn’t limited to the protests of last Thursday and Saturday night. Liraz Sharbaf, 39, of Tel Aviv said that at a protest about a week and a half ago in Jerusalem, she was hit in the face by a jet from a water cannon.
“At some point, a friend and I were not part of the crowd and were at the back. All of a sudden, the water cannon passed by us, and I felt a huge stream of water at my face. I could have been just a passerby, for that matter. I felt a strong blow to my eye,” said Sharbaf, who when we spoke, still had swelling and a bruise around her eye.
For their part, the police say they view water cannons as an efficient piece of equipment that disperses protesters quickly using only water and without resorting to weapons or other means.
In a response for this article, the Israel Police said they “utilize a variety of means to disperse disturbances of the peace according to their level [of severity] and according to proper procedure.” The water cannon is one of the effective means for dispersing disturbances of the peace, a method whose efficacy has been proven and is used by many police forces abroad, the police added.
The police said the water cannon does not pose a danger to people or the environment and is actually designed to reduce friction between the police and those disturbing the peace to a bare minimum.
But one of the developers of the water cannon used by the police, Udi Sela of Kibbutz Bet Alfa, expressed opposition to its use at the recent demonstrations.
“I very much dislike and feel uncomfortable with the use the police are making of the water cannons,” said Sela, who is a familiar figure among the police. The manner in which the police were using the equipment was “wrong professionally and dangerous too,” he claimed. “A jet of water like that in the face of a protester from a distance of 10 to 15 meters is like a 50–60 kilogram blow,” he said, the equivalent of 110 to 132 pounds of force
A less powerful jet of water could be used, he asserted, “and they also need to think about when to use it. So a few people went into the street and blocked traffic at 12 midnight. Really, come on.” The police, he added, “look very bad at these protests, even without the water cannons.”
Controversial around the world
Water cannons can be equipped to spray water alone or water dyed with blue food coloring or skunk water, a liquid containing a foul-smelling additive that leaves an odor on clothing and the body that lasts for a several days. The dye is meant to “mark” protesters, but at the recent Jerusalem protests was “completely unnecessary,” Sela said. “It’s mainly designed to make people dirty and to annoy them.”
According to police statistics, last year the Israel Police used water cannons in 14 cases with plain water and eight other times with skunk water – primarily in Jerusalem. This year so far water cannons have been deployed in Jerusalem and in Jaffa about 10 times.
Three members of the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem have petitioned the High Court of Justice against the use of skunk water. At a hearing on the petition last month, other aspects of the use of the water cannons came to light. According to procedure, they are to be deployed only when a disturbance of the peace reaches at level at which “violent opposition is employed against the police or members of the public in a manner that is liable to cause personal injury or property damage.”
A sub-section of the rules states, however, that water cannons can also be used when “protesters violently oppose the actions of the police to disperse a demonstration” and when “there is a tangible suspicion that essential thoroughfares will be blocked.” This second circumstance appears to be the basis for the use of the water cannons in Jerusalem, since they were deployed on protesters who were not violent toward the police.
“These means are effective in crowd dispersal in incidents of a severe nature,” a representative of the State Prosecutor’s Office told the High Court of Justice last month, citing an affidavit from the police official in charge of disturbances of the peace.
“Despite the inconvenience caused” to a number of protesters and area residents, “they sustained no significant physical injuries as a result of the use of these means,” the court was told at the time. But Justice Yosef Elron called the use of the water cannons “drastic.”
At the next highest level of disturbance of the peace, police are allowed to use clubs, sponge bullets and tear gas, with the approval of the district commander. At the end of Thursday’s protest in Jerusalem, a number of police officers were seen carrying clubs to police vehicles, an indication that they were prepared for such a possibility. Activists with the “Crime Minister” group that has been staging protests against Netanyahu said they intend to petition the High Court of Justice to seek to put an end to the use of water cannons.
The devices were developed in Israel and have been used by police forces around the world, but it is not only in Israel that they are controversial. In Germany in 2014, police in Stuttgart were prosecuted for using them improperly at a protest, injuring a number of protesters and blinding a 66-year-old man. The court ruled that the water cannons had been used with brutality and ordered the police to compensate the injured protesters.
Last year in Hong Kong, protesters were also injured by water cannons, prompting the head of Amnesty International’s Hong Kong branch to warn the police against their use. It is not a toy, he said, and can lead to serious injury or even death.
In 2016, Baek Nam-gi, 68, of South Korea was rendered unconscious by a jet from a water cannon during at an anti-government protest in the capital, Seoul, and died a year later.
For their part the Israel Police said: “The water cannons are used following other attempts to disperse disturbances of the peace and are intended to maintain law and public order and stop the blocking of roads, violent riots, etc. We will continue to permit freedom of expression and protest according to law, but we will not allow violent riots and will make proportionate and professional use of the means at our disposal to disperse disturbances of the peace that are against the law.”