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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Walled In

Soozy Duncan Apr 16, 2009

Tristan Anderson, the American shot in the head with a teargas canister by the Israeli forces on March 13, remains in critical condition in Tel HaShomer hospital near Tel Aviv. Three neurosurgeries have been performed to date, including a partial right frontal lobectomy and the repair of a cerebrospinal fluid leak using a tendon from his thigh. It is unknown whether Anderson’s right eye has been permanently blinded, and the extent to which he will regain any other abilities will not be evident for some time.

Anderson, a 38 year old activist from the Bay Area, was volunteering as an International Human Rights Observer with the International Solidarity Movement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank when he and his partner Gabrielle Silverman, also American, attended a demonstration against the building of the Wall in the agricultural village of Ni’lin.

The people of Ni’lin have been staging protests at least weekly since May 2008 against the confiscation of their land to build the Wall. It is estimated that the village will have shrunk from 10000 to 7500 dunums following its construction. Ni’lin’s area amounted to 58000 dunums prior to the wars of 1948 and 1967 and the more recent annexation of its land for the construction of the 3 illegal settlements with which it is contiguous, as well as the network of “sterile” (Jewish-only) roads built to service them. Ni’lin lies 3 kilometers inside the 1949 Green Line which outlines the occupied Palestinian territory internationally recognized as the West Bank. The Wall, which was ruled to be illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, has been widely criticized for carving deeply into the West Bank and expropriating land from its Palestinian owners. Israel includes the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights uncircumscribed within its borders on maps on its official websites for tourism and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The protest at which Anderson was shot followed the mid-day Jumu’ah prayer, when Ni’lin residents attempted to march to the Wall through their own fields as occurs each Friday. Video footage of the immediate aftermath of Anderson’s shooting shows he is next to buildings in the village, not in the “closed military zone” surrounding the Wall’s construction. As Red Crescent medics clearly marked in fluorescent orange vests attempt to bandage Anderson and load him onto a fluorescent stretcher, teargas canisters continue to fall all around them. Later footage shows Anderson being transferred at the Ni’lin checkpoint from the Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance into an Israeli ambulance which was called by Israeli activists on the scene, as, in accordance with official policy, soldiers would not allow the Palestinian medic crew through.

Coinciding with the assault on Gaza, the Israeli army has dramatically escalated the weapons which it uses to suppress nonviolent resistance in the West Bank. Teargas and rubber-coated steel bullets have long been utilized at popular demonstrations in Ni’lin and elsewhere. In December 2008, Israel introduced a new kind of extended-range teargas canister, such as the one which critically injured Anderson, and has also re-introduced the use of live ammunition from sniper rifles. As Sarit Michaeli, Communication Director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, points out, “It was reintroduced during a period where interest was directed elsewhere, directed at Gaza. And obviously the media and the public weren’t as interested in the events in the West Bank”. Sasha Solanas, a volunteer at the International Solidarity Movement office in Ramallah, agrees: “There is a major connection. I believe 7 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank during the massacres on Gaza. If the whole world is watching you kill a thousand plus in one place and not saying anything, what’s a few more in another place?” Solanas adds that she thinks the “very violent methods to suppress Palestinians in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem during the attacks” may have been out of fear that another Intifada would begin in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Investigation by B’Tselem revealed that the teargas canister that impacted Anderson’s skull, which has a range of over 400 meters, was fired from a distance of 60 meters directly at him, rather than using the arching trajectory that the army itself mandates. B’Tselem has extensive video footage of Israeli forces, including soldiers and border police, firing teargas directly at Palestinian demonstrators and international activists, and has also documented the renewed use of live ammunition at demonstrations. The organization recently petitioned the Judge Advocate General and the Attorney General of Israel demanding that the army and border police cease using tear-gas canisters as direct projectile weapons and discontinue the use of Ruger sniper rifles and .22 caliber bullets to disperse crowds in the West Bank. In 2001, the prior Judge Advocate General ordered that the use of the Ruger be stopped following the killing of several children in the Gaza Strip.

Michaeli voices concern that the re-introduction of the Ruger sniper rifle and live ammunition creates “a mix up in the soldiers’ minds between what is a lethal weapon and what is a legitimate crowd control measure to use in demonstration.” She elaborates that rubber-coated steel bullets are now “fired completely against the open fire regulations, it’s fired from very short distances in ways that are extremely dangerous, and at children.” The results of this evolution are that “slowly but surely rubber coated bullets have become lethal weapons in the hands of some soldiers.” And live ammunition, she cautions, is “much more dangerous than even rubber coated bullets.”

Tear gas, which is typically viewed as a nonlethal and legitimate tool for crowd control and dispersal, has undergone a similar change in intended use in the West Bank. According to Michaeli, “the way they use tear gas canisters makes it a lethal weapon, or potentially lethal”. She explains that as a human rights group B’Tselem felt the need to address their concerns to the Israeli authorities, because “if you’re firing it directly at people, especially with these extended-range canisters, then you’re basically firing a small missile at people and, as you saw in Tristan’s case and other cases, where there are extremely dangerous consequences.”

International and Israeli activists have reported that the new extended-range teargas canisters are inherently far more dangerous to demonstrators and observers. While the normal-range teargas used previously emitted a characteristic loud popping sound when fired and had a thick, highly visible smoke plume, these new projectiles are barely audible, barely visible, heavier, and travel both farther and at a much greater velocity. Observers, trained to turn their backs, lower their heads, and cover the base of skull with both hands for protection in response to the sound of fire, are now naive and unprotected targets with extended-range tear gas canisters and the equally silent .22 caliber sniper bullet. Anderson’s injury is a freak tragedy by international standards, but Michaeli issues the reminder that “many Palestinians have been injured very badly by soldiers in these kind of situations where there’s some kind of demo or stone-throwing”.

The Judge Advocate General and the Attorney General of Israel have not yet responded to B’Tselem’s petitions. The Israeli army recently declined to respond to questions about weapons used in the wake of a March 4 incident in Beit Omar in which a 16 year old Palestinian boy, Mahdi Abu Ayash, was shot in the head by what doctors determined to be live ammunition.

As of the time of this writing, Anderson is partially responsive and doctors are unsure when he will be able to return home. Much needed tax-deductible donations for his medical care can be made via justicefortristan.org. Get well cards can be sent to Tristan c/o Jonathon Pollak, 10 Elazar Street, Tel Aviv 65157, Israel.