Israel relaxes live-fire rules against stone-throwers

Netanyahu pushes through rules letting forces fire live .22 rounds during protests

An Israeli soldier aiming his rifle at Palestinian protesters during clashes in the West Bank village of Silwad, north of Ramallah last year. Israel’s security cabinet has broadened the rules under which stone-throwers can be targeted by live fire. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

An Israeli soldier aiming his rifle at Palestinian protesters during clashes in the West Bank village of Silwad, north of Ramallah last year. Israel’s security cabinet has broadened the rules under which stone-throwers can be targeted by live fire. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

 

Israel’s security forces will have greater latitude to use live ammunition against Palestinians throwing stones and firebombs – including against minors – as part of a tough new series of measures pushed through by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Under the new rules, approved unanimously by the security cabinet on Thursday night, police and soldiers will be able to fire .22 calibre live rounds from Ruger rifles when they judge that not only their own lives are in danger but also those of civilians.

Ministers passed the measures following a recent rise in roadside attacks against Israeli vehicles in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The change in open-fire regulations comes in a package that has seen opposition both from human rights groups and the Israeli attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, including tough new sentencing guidelines for throwing stones and molotov cocktails, as well as heavy fines.

Although Israeli officials argue that the Ruger rounds are less lethal than heavier ammunition, the use of live fire for riot control remains deeply controversial. According to human rights groups, in 2014 alone 12 Palestinian minors were shot and killed by Israeli forces during protests and clashes in the West Bank.

The new rules follow a recent heated political debate over how to counter stone-throwing in some Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem and on West Bank roads, which gained added momentum after the recent death of an elderly motorist who died after crashing his car during an alleged stone-throwing incident in the city.

“We intend to change the norm that has become established here: that the state of Israel allows these deadly and murderous objects to be thrown without response and without being thwarted,” said Mr Netanyahu in a statement issued after the vote.

“Until recently, police officers would open fire when their own lives were at risk,” Mr Netanyahu said. “From now on, they will be allowed to open fire– and they will know they have a right to do so – when anyone’s life is in danger.

“We have decided to penalise more severely adult stone-throwers with a minimum sentence of four years in prison and also to authorise larger fines for minors and their parents,” the statement added.

“These sanctions apply to all Israeli citizens and residents of Israel,” it said, referring to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who do not have Israeli citizenship.

In recent weeks Mr Netanyahu’s declared “war on stone throwers” and promises of zero tolerance have replaced the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme as his main preoccupation.

The Israeli security cabinet also decided to advance legislation to impose a minimum penalty of four years’ imprisonment for those throwing rocks. It said steps would be taken to jail and fine stone-throwing minors aged 14-18, adding that their parents could also face various fines.

The new regulations bring the Israeli police in line with the rules of engagement for Israeli soldiers on the West Bank, who have been criticised for how they interpret “threat to life” before opening fire.

The rules come despite the vocal objection of Mr Weinstein, who objected both to the new sentencing guidelines and also to the loosening of police rules of engagement for live fire.

The measures follow hard on the heels of the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old Palestinian female student at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron. Critics say the incident underscores the issue of how quickly Israeli security forces turn to lethal force. Hadeel al-Hashlamon died in disputed circumstances on Tuesday with the Israeli military saying she had intended to stab a soldier at the checkpoint. Witnesses disputed this.

An investigation by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that while she did have a knife under her niqab veil she posed no threat to soldiers at the time she was shot and could have been subdued without being fatally wounded. According to B’Tselem, at no point did Hashlamon threaten the soldiers with the knife.

B’Tselem said: “As she was leaving the checkpoint, with a 1.2-metre metal barrier between her and the soldiers, a soldier called her to stop as he was shooting at the ground next to her, and then at her leg. According to [witness] testimony, al-Hashlamon fell, and as she was falling, her right hand was revealed to be holding a knife.

“She did not get up, but the soldier shot her again, in the other leg, and seconds later in the torso. Some of the incident was caught on camera by an international volunteer who was at the scene.

“The circumstances of the incident indicate that the soldiers at the checkpoint acted disproportionately. They did not try to subdue her and take her into custody without resorting to live fire.

“The claim that al-Hashlamon tried to stab soldiers, repeated by the media, cannot be reconciled with the fact that there was a metal barrier between her and the soldiers at the time of the shooting.” Guardian service