"Less-lethal" weapons in Jerusalem: "The purpose of these bullets isn’t corresponding to the reality"

Israeli photojournalist Tali Mayer, 28, was shot by a black-tipped sponge bullet while reporting on a demonstration. This led to her project with the ACRI, a member of INCLO, photographing Palestinians injured by these crowd-control bullets.

An openDemocracy
2 October 2017
Palestinian teenager who lost an eye from a sponge-tipped bullet

Zakariya Julani, 14, from Shuafat refugee camp, was hit by a black sponge-tipped bullet while standing near his house as Israeli police forces were monitoring workers renovating the separation wall. He lost his left eye. Image: Tali Mayer. All rights reserved.

This interview is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society


Can you start by giving me some background to the project and how it came about?

In the summer of 2014 there was a specific event that a lot of people in Jerusalem and outside still see as decisive. It was following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers, and then a revenge murder where Israeli teenagers killed a youth from Shuafat, an East Jerusalem neighbourhood, on the night of 1 July 2014. I was covering the funerals [of the Israelis] earlier that day, and later on that afternoon attempted lynchings were taking place in central Jerusalem in the aftermath; groups of people were trying to follow and find Palestinian workers in the centre of Jerusalem. The morning after we heard the news about Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who had been kidnapped and killed. Even at that point I realised that this was going to be an event that would change day-to-day reality in Jerusalem.

Shortly after I went to cover a protest by people from the neighbourhood on the murder. There were many journalists there, standing quite far from the events, and on the other side there were the cops. And at some point bullets were shot towards us. I was shot in the right side of the face. A photographer standing next to me got shot in the shoulder and another one was in the neck. I had two breaks in the jaw and had to take a few months off to recover, so then I saw the war like every other citizen, on the sofa, on the TV and not as a journalist. But I started to research the bullets that were used against me.

A month and a half after I was shot, a teenager called Mohammed Sunuqrut, from Wadi Joz in East Jerusalem, was shot in the head by a police officer [with a black-tipped sponge bullet] and killed. And there have been many reports since then of people being shot in the head with these bullets, which is against the official police regulations on how to use this bullet. I decided that people should be informed and able to reflect about these events, so I met with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel [ACRI]. They were very interested in a project that would also reflect their own work to change policy regarding use of these bullets.

A palestinian teenager who lost his left eye from a sponge-tipped bullet

Yihia Al-Amudi, 14, from Shuafat refugee camp, attends a school near a checkpoint that's a hotspot for clashes between police and Palestinian youths. He was hit by a black sponge-tipped bullet when standing on the corner of the camp’s main street. He lost his left eye. Image: Tali Mayer. All rights reserved.

When did Israeli security forces start using these ‘nonlethal’ bullets? Was this around the same time that these events were unfolding?

Yes, it’s important to mention that the summer of 2014 was also the time when Israeli police started using these bullets [model 4557, aka the black-tipped sponge bullet]. Before then, blue sponge bullets, that were half the weight and actually made of sponge, were in use. But police officers complained that they were not useful enough. Actually, it’s also important to show this point of view; police officers were claiming that protesters were catching these blue bullets and just throwing them back. So then they changed them to the black ones, which look the same but the main material is not sponge but rubber, and they are much heavier. They are still referred to as sponge bullets but they only have sponge tips. It’s since this change that we’ve started to see much more serious injuries.

Can you tell me more about the injuries you’ve witnessed among the people you photographed?

The severity of the injury depends on what part of the upper body is shot and on how far away the person who shot you was. We saw lots of different cases, some more minor, including a 13-year-old girl who was shot in the neck but was okay, but also many cases of people losing their eyes – not just the eyesight, but completely losing the whole eye. There was one 11-year-old child from Isawiyah [a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem] who was shot in a specific place in the head that caused him to lose one eye immediately, and then later on the sight in his other eye, so he went completely blind. Most of the people who I photographed lost at least one of their eyes.

Portrait of a Palestinian teenager who was left with brain damage from a sponge-tipped bullet

Ahmad Abu-Hummus, 14, from the neighbourhood of Isawiya, was shot in the head by a black sponge-tipped bullet near his house. He suffered many fractures to his skull and has been left with severe brain damage. Image: Tali Mayer. All rights reserved.

Why did you decide to focus on people who weren’t involved in demonstrations at the time they were shot?

The project focused on 16 people who lost their eyes from these bullets and who were not part of a demonstration when they were shot. But that also means that we’re automatically talking about dozens of other people, protesters, who are being shot and losing their eyes or being brain damaged.

We wanted to make a wide statement in Israel and Palestine about these bullets. First of all, these bullets are used at the moment only in Jerusalem and in the West Bank – by police in Jerusalem and by the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] in the West Bank. The context is important because East Jerusalem is a forced occupied territory and it’s therefore not by mistake that these bullets are used there. They are defined as non-lethal weapons to disperse crowds.

But most of the demonstrations in East Jerusalem are not demonstrations that we are used to seeing in other places; there is a specific relationship in these neighbourhoods between protesters and the police. So in this context these bullets are used more to suppress events than to disperse crowds; it’s not by mistake that stronger ammunition is being used there. We wanted the public to be aware that people who live in these neighbourhoods, who are not taking part in a demonstration, are being shot in the head, to start people thinking about it.

Also, people who are injured during demonstrations in Jerusalem are straight away evacuated to the Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem, or Ramallah, because if they were to be evacuated to the Israeli hospitals they would be arrested straight after or even during their medical treatment. Therefore it is much harder for us to be on top of the data in the increase in injuries among protesters. But I can only assume that, with the levels of clashes that we see, there must be an increase in protesters being injured too.

Portrait of a 33-year-old Palestinian man left completely blind from a sponge-tipped bullet

Taysir Sanduka, 33, was shot by a black sponge-tipped bullet when returning from work on the day of the funeral of Mohammed Abu khdeir, in Shuafat. He was hit in his left eye after becoming caught between the funeral procession and Israeli police. Already blind in his right eye since childhood, he is now completely blind. Image: Tali Mayer. All rights reserved.

What are the state regulations regarding use of these weapons by police and security forces?

We don’t know if new regulations were brought in when they started to use the stronger bullets, or if they continued to use the same ones, though the ACRI does have evidence to suspect that they didn’t change the regulations. And anyway the regulations even for the less strong blue sponge bullets stated that you are not allowed to shoot the upper part of the body – so from the stomach and up. And the bullets also cannot be officially used against elderly people, children or pregnant women.

However, the youngest boy we photographed was five years old when he was shot. He lost his eyesight. And there was a woman who was 66 years old who was shot in the head while standing on the balcony of her own house. And of course all the others were shot in the head, so we see a strong dissonance between regulations and what is actually happening in reality. And there hasn't yet been a proper response from officials on this.

So are there no cases of police or security officers being investigated or brought to trial?

There haven’t been any cases, no, for the people I photographed, or any others. And the only one where there was an investigation that took place was Mohammed Sunuqrut, who was killed, and the police officer who testified claimed that he shot him in the leg and that afterwards he fell to the floor and hit his head on the sidewalk, and that he died from that. But the medical investigation showed that he was in fact shot in the head, yet even in this case the officer was not put on trial, the investigation was closed.

Portrait of a Palestinian boy who was shot by a sponge-tipped bullet when he was five years old

Muhammad Abid was five-and-a-half when he was shot by a black sponge-tipped bullet. He was walking home from school in the neighbourhood of Isawiya. ‘There were no clashes that day, it was a routine patrol. Only one bullet was shot and this bullet hit him’, his father stated. Image: Tali Mayer. All rights reserved.

How has the project been received?

It’s only been shown in Israel so far, because our aim was to influence public opinion here first of all. It was first shown a year ago in an article in Haaretz weekend magazine that I wrote. Another important thing to mention is that we didn’t want to say that any of these injuries happened on purpose, or that somebody actually aimed at the faces of the people. The point we wanted to make is that ‘non-involved’ people are being seriously injured in spite of regulations. This was the thing we wanted to show.

After the project was featured in Haartez it then went on to win ‘Series of the Year’ in the Local Testimony exhibition, which is a photojournalism exhibition held alongside the World Press Photo exhibition in Israel. It’s unusual for a work about wounded Palestinians to get such strong attention in Israel, and this has been one of its achievements.

But I think the article was even more important because we managed to bring the stories of these events into the public arena. Most of the media in Israel is very conservative. The biggest newspaper, Israel Hayom [Israel Today], has a very strong relationship with our government, with Netanyahu, and is funded by Sheldon Adelson, a multimillionaire republican in the United States. So this phenomenon had not been introduced to the public before, and when people saw that the project is about people who were not involved in demonstrations it was hard for them to comprehend it.

Portrait of a Palestinian man who lost his left eye and was left with fractures to his face from a sponge-tipped bulllet

Luai Abed, 38, from the neighbourhood of Isawiya, was shot in the head by a black sponge-tipped bullet on his balcony, after he heard noise from the street. The bullet caused fractures to his face and he lost his left eye. Image: Tali Mayer. All rights reserved.

You’ve said that you are working on a second part to the project. Will this have the same focus?

Even though the project made some achievements in terms of consciousness in Israel, we never got any meaningful response from policymakers. And the injuries are continuing; every once in a while we hear about another teenager shot in the head who has lost an eye or has another serious injury. But we have a reason to be optimistic about policy change because around ten years ago there were other kinds of ‘nonlethal’ bullets in use that were made of steel and much smaller, but which caused many serious injuries. And a campaign to end their use was successful and the blue bullets replaced them.

The subtext of the police response seems to be that if they are shooting 40,000 of these bullets a year, and 40 people are being injured in the head, then this is okay, it’s a standard that they can live with and expect to have. But we want to emphasise that these 40 injured are people who are losing their eyes or being brain damaged and this is not in line with the concept of these bullets as non-lethal weapons to disperse crowds. So we want to continue to press the fact that the purpose of these bullets isn’t corresponding to the reality, that they are not being used as they are supposed to be used and that it might not even be possible to use them as they are meant to be used.

Also, it’s illegal to shoot at a 66 year old woman on the balcony of her house. But it’s also illegal for police to use these bullets against anyone at the upper part of the body, even if it’s a 17 year old Palestinian throwing stones at you. It’s still illegal according to the current regulations. So I think that while the first part of this project was aimed at the Israeli public, trying to use messages to reach out to as many of them as possible, I think that we will rethink the continuation of it and try to widen our messages about the use of these bullets.

It’s very important to understand that the neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem where we shot this project are neighbourhoods that have protests and confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli police on a daily basis, day and night. Demonstrations are usually by groups of teenagers, but hundreds of thousands of people live in these neighbourhoods and these people don’t disappear during these clashes. The clashes are part of daily life, so one of the wider implications of this project is to question the situation of the forced occupation as a whole, and ask whether these injuries are an inevitable consequence of the situation in East Jerusalem.


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