Friday, January 12, 2018

Israel, Palestine and the Use of Tear Gas

While news from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be on the back burner, recent research by Rohini Haar and Jess Ghannam at the Human Rights Center at the University of California's School of Law examines one of the rarely discussed issues facing Palestinian refugees.  In their "No Safe Space" paper, the authors look at the impact of exposure to tear gas on the health of residents of two Palestinian refugee camps, Aida and Dheisheh which are located just outside Bethlehem on the occupied West Bank.  This issue is of particular concern given that long-term residents of these camps report that they have been exposed to tear gas 2 to 3 times weekly and, in some cases, almost every day.

Let's look at some background information on both camps:

1.) Aida - established in 1950, home to 6400 refugees (population has quadrupled since the camp was established), areal extent is 0.071 square kilometres, population density is 90,000 per square kilometre, two schools are located in the camp, there is no health centre in the camp and residents with health issues access the UNRWA health centre located in Bethlehem (1 kilometre from the camp), the camp is partially surrounded by Israel's West Bank Barrier.

Here is a map showing the location of the Aida camp:

2.) Dheisheh - established in 1949, home to around 15000 people (camp was built to service 3,000 refugees), areal extent is 0.33 square kilometres, population density is 45,454 per square kilometre, four schools are located in the camp serving 2150 students, there is one health centre in the camp.

Here is a map showing the location of the Dheisheh camp:

As you may have noticed, the population density of both camps is very high.  To put these numbers into perspective, here is a table showing the population densities (in people per square kilometre) for the worlds largest urban areas:

It is quite apparent that the population density in both of these camps is extremely high by world standards.

Here is a bit of background on tear gas.  Tear gas, a chemical irritant, is composed of a synthetic CN (chloracetophenone) or CS (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile gas that is intended to cause short-term pain including a burning sensation on exposed skin and tearing of the eyes.  Newer forms of CS (i.e. CS1 and CS2) are siliconized to increase the half-life and potency of the chemical.  Interestingly, since 1993, tear gas is banned for use in warfare under Article I (5) of the Chemical Weapons Convention which states that:

"Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare."

...however, there is no such ban on the use of tear gas by local security and police forces when it comes to controlling the "sweaty masses", Palestinian or anywhere else in the world for that matter. 

With that background, let's take a deeper look at the research by Rohini Haar and Jess Gahnnam.  To complete their analysis, in August 2017, the authors conducted 10 focus groups with over 75 participants and interviewed 236 individuals aged 10 years and older.  Most of the surveys were conducted in the Aida camp.  The survey asked questions regarding exposure to tear gas as well as any long- or short-term medical or psychological symptoms that appeared as a result of tear gas exposure.

The authors found that 100 percent of the residents had been exposed to tear gas in the past year with 55 percent stating that they had been exposed to tear gas between three and ten times in the month prior to the survey.  In the same time period, 84.3 percent had been exposed to tear gas in their homes, 9.4 percent at work, 10.7 percent in school and 8.5 percent elsewhere.  As well, 22.5 percent of people stated that they had been directly hit with a tear gas canister in the past.  Not only have Palestinian refugees been exposed to tear gas on a regular basis; 87 percent of respondents had been exposed to stun grenades, 85 percent to skunk water and 54 percent to pepper spray.  As well, 52 percent had witnessed the use of rubber bullets.

The repeated use of tear gas (and other means of force) by Israel's security forces has led to both physical and mental health issues:

1.) Physical health - fainting, seizures, miscarriages, loss of consciousness, eye irritation,  sweating, dizziness, loss of balance, breathing difficulties and rashes were reported.  Respondents also stated that they associate several chronic health conditions with tear gas exposure including asthma, headaches, allergic dermatitis, neurological irritability and blunt trauma from canister impacts.  More than 75 percent of respondents reported eye-related complaints (tearing, burning and pain), skin irritation and respiratory problems that lasted more than 24 hours after exposure.  Despite all of these tear gas exposure health-related issues, only 23.6 percent stated that they received medical care because of a tear gas-related incident.

2.) Mental health - the 12 question General Health Questionnaire used by the authors to identify minor psychiatric disorders in the population showed that a level of distress was present among the refugee population that included high levels of anxiety and depression, sleep disruption and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.  Community focus groups reported that fear, worry, hyper-arousal, poor and disrupted sleep, lack of safety and disruptions in basic life activities was related to the frequency and unpredictability of Israeli security forces raids which created a state of hyper-arousal and fear.  Parents reported that they were unable to provide a "safe space" for their children.

While it's a situation of "their word against my word", many residents stated that the use of tear gas by Israel's security forces is not directly correlated to political tensions, violent or non-violent protests or stone throwing incidents.

The authors close with the following recommendations:

"The primary responsibility for protecting Palestinian civilians in occupied territory and ensuring their welfare is with Israel, the occupying power. All Palestinians living in the occupied areas are considered protected persons under international law. Israel must respect and protect their rights. We urge the State of Israel to encourage methods to avoid the use of crowd control weapons more broadly. We need to use safe and effective crowd control weapons in limited roles may be accepted but note that the utilization of tear gas in these camps appears to be well beyond any appropriate use. The Israeli government and security forces are the only stakeholders in this context that can limit the use of tear gas, and we urge you to reconsider how this weapon is currently deployed...

We note that the use of tear gas in the Aida and Dheisheh camps appears to be at an unprecedented scale. We hope that the international community, other UN actors and state parties can advocate on behalf of these refugees to limit the sales of these weapons, increase transparency on what chemical is actually being used, and advocate for the discriminate, proportionate, and minimum use necessary of all crowd control weapons."

With Washington's recent proposal to move its embassy to Jerusalem, we can be certain of one thing; tensions in the occupied Palestinian Territories are only going to worsen, leading to even greater exposure of its residents to tear gas and other means of "corrective behaviour" by Israel's security apparatus.

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