How not to disperse demonstrators - By Arnon Regular During demonstrations last weekend at Biddu village, northwest of Jerusalem, it appeared that protesters objecting to the separation fence and Israeli security forces had adopted clear "rules of the game." A few hundred residents from the village, along with left-wing demonstrators in the Anarchists Against the Wall group (some of them from overseas) came out day after day to protest the construction of the fence. Well-equipped Border Police units surrounded the village, and a few hundred meters from where the security forces were deployed, six or seven bulldozers plowed away areas where the fence is to be built, sometimes ruining agricultural areas.
A number of groups of protesters, each one comprising of a few dozen demonstrators, hassled the Border Police units, throwing rocks at them, and sometimes using slingshots to hurl the projectiles. Playing its part, the Border Police fired tear gas canisters at the demonstrators. Then there was one Border Policeman, or IDF soldier, who shot rubber-coated bullets at the protesters from a distance of 70-80 meters. About every 30 minutes, one of the demonstrators was injured, and dragged by fellow protesters a few dozen meters back, to a pick-up point where a Red Crescent ambulance was waiting to bring them to the village's health clinic.
These well-defined roles in the recent Biddu demonstrations come as responses to events in the village last February, in which three Palestinians were killed, and over 50 were injured. The recent demonstrations have been a kind of ceremony, play-acting in which the two sides follow newly established codes that prevent the conflict from becoming too violent.
The problem is that these Biddu confrontations are the exception, and not the rule in the West Bank. In Biddu, it appears the sides have come prepared to the recent, much publicized, conflict: the anarchist protesters, and the Israeli security forces, are organized and coached in ways that prevent lethal violence. Yet a Haaretz investigation reveals that confrontation realities are very different in other West Bank Palestinian villages that border the Green Line - these include Beit Lahia, Bitunya and Herbata.
Examination of video and still photograph footage of events, along with eyewitness accounts from participants in anti-fence demonstrations since the start of March, reveals a disturbing pattern of behavior on the part of IDF, Border Police and civilian security personnel who help the IDF disperse crowds.
Also, in various West Bank locales, some of the left-wing demonstrators, such as the brothers Yonatan and Shai Polak, behave in a far more militant and provocative fashion than what has been in display recently in the Anarchists Against the Wall protests in Biddu. Yonatan Polak taunts the soldiers, telling them to refuse orders related to the fence. The demonstrators mock and jeer the soldiers, chanting out sexual innuendo and relying on other forms of verbal provocation that has not been witnessed before in political protests in the territories.
While the protesters sometimes cross the line, the most troubling aspect of the protests is the lack of a clear code of behavior for the IDF soldiers. If in Biddu the soldiers seem to have drawn conclusions from past tragedies, troops in other locales appear to behave in a far less disciplined fashion, and do not appear obligated to clearly defined rules of engagement.
On April 1, no work was done on the separation fence in Bitunya, but a protest group nonetheless staged a demonstration in an area where IDF bulldozers were parked. A group of 50 protesters arrived at an area guarded by what appear on film to be mostly IDF reservists. Originally, there were from five to eight soldiers, and a few jeeps. The demonstrators approached to within a few meters of the soldiers, who seemed confused and at a loss as to how to respond. For 90 minutes, the demonstrators chanted slogans, taunted and cursed the soldiers; as the protest finally ended, and while the demonstrators dispersed, soldiers in a jeep decided to ride toward them. Yonatan Polak and two fellow demonstrators stood in the jeep's path; the army vehicle accelerated.
The two protesters jumped out of the way; Polak jumped onto the front of the jeep. For reasons that are unclear, the jeep continued to charge forward; Polak came within a whisker of suffering serious injury. At this stage, the scene became ugly: the soldiers can be seen firing rubber bullets at Polak and other demonstrators, who took cover behind some boulders about 50 meters from the soldiers. The demonstrators, at this stage, posed absolutely no threat to the soldiers; the film captures the soldiers firing rubber bullets for no apparent reason. After Polak and other demonstrators sustained injuries, the soldiers appeared not to know what they should do next. One soldier proposed that IDF medics should be summoned; another shouts "the Palestinians will evacuate them."
This clumsy and dangerous scene from Bitunya resembles a number of incidents that occurred over the past month in the West Bank. Some events involved trained policemen; others involved regular IDF solders and reservists. The incidents involving soldiers are typically characterized by chaos - the soldiers utilize improvised solutions, and it is clear they lack training in crowd dispersal. In several cases, the soldiers appear ill-acquainted with crowd dispersal equipment in their own possession - as the events unfold, officers instruct them as to how to use the rubber bullets or tear gas canisters. In many cases, an IDF soldier can be seen firing several rubber bullets in succession, without taking aim.
There are also cases of hand-to-hand combat in which soldiers appear not to know how to act. For instance, in one incident on March 8 at Beit Lahia, protesters moved to within a few meters of the soldiers, who fired bullets haplessly into the air, or flailed with clubs. In this demonstration, soldiers fired rubber bullets from a number of different positions and distances - from 20 to 50 to 100 meters from protesters; sometimes, the soldiers took aim with the rubber bullets, and on other occasions they fired indiscriminately at the protesters. At one stage, a guard from a private security company appears to be hysterical, and fires shots from a rifle at the ground, in front of the group of demonstrators. His behavior clearly violates all established rules of engagement.
Apart from the recent demonstrations at Biddu, aspects of these chaotic scenes from Bitunya and Beit Lahia can be observed in all anti-fence demonstrations staged around the West Bank.
Analysis / Ongoing nightmare for the military - By Amos Harel
When the political leadership decided after a delay of two years to accelerate construction of the separation fence, it's doubtful it considered the barrier's repercussions on the Israel Defense Forces.
An artillery unit the size of a brigade was originally deployed to guard construction of the fence from Elkana to the Jerusalem region. But as protests against the fence expanded in size and intensity, larger deployments of IDF troops were needed to constrain these demonstrations.
It turns out that guarding the work-in-progress fence in the field has turned out to be a taxing military challenge for IDF commanders.
Today, no less than five companies are deployed regularly to handle the protests. A few infantry battalions will soon be needed to evacuate five settlement outposts in the West Bank. With so much manpower allocated to deal with the fence and the outposts, it's a wonder the IDF has time for anti-terror operations in the West Bank.
The "Anarchists Against the Wall" protesters are objectionable types. They are crude and provocative, and resort to violence to rattle the soldiers. When Yonatan Polak, the most strident and vocal member of the group, hurled himself onto a moving IDF jeep, he was clearly trying to create a provocation that would win media attention. Nor does Polak put much stock in trifling matters like court decisions: Yesterday, he explained that efforts to disrupt the bulldozers would continue, even though court petitions protesting the work were rejected.
Just as surely, the (edited) film clips that members of the group disseminate do not not protect them against palpable dangers - in other words, though the protesters circulated the footage to win sympathy for their cause, the only sure thing that can be said after viewing the films is that the protesters' lives are at risk.
"Dispersal of a civilian demonstration never looks good," bemoans a senior IDF officer. Such laments relate to an objective truth: what the first Palestinian intifada revealed holds true 16 years later. The IDF, which excels in high precision offensive operations, stumbles with the thankless task of dealing with civilians, some of whom resort to violent methods. The same army that gained control (without causing injuries to either side) of a psychiatric hospital in Bethlehem housing terror suspects finds it difficult to obtain the same results when confronting women, youths and elderly civilians who protest the separation fence.
Last Update: 14/04/2004 16:52 12 protesters hurt during protest against West Bank fence By Arnon Regular, Haaretz Correspondent, Haaretz Service and AP
Some 12 people were wounded Wednesday during during clashes between Border Police officers and protesters demonstrating against the West Bank separation fence under construction between the villages of Biddu and Beit Ajaza, west of Jerusalem. Security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.
Ten Palestinians were hurt, including a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was seriously injured after being hit in the head by a rubber-coated bullet.
Two Israeli protesters were also lightly hurt in their legs.
There are almost daily protests near this section of the fence, which is close to the Israeli town of Mevasseret Zion. Hundreds of Biddu residents, as well as five to ten members of the Anarchists Against the Wall groups and foreign left-wing protesters participate in the demonstrations.