Teary-eyed but alive: A former IDF soldier’s personal encounter with tear gas

(By Michael Bassin)
That exposure to tear gas can be painful there is no doubt.  But baseless allegations that a thirty-six year old Palestinian woman died recently purely from exposure to Israeli tear gas prompted me to write about my own experience suffering from its effects.
There I was crying in front of the cameras.  Four of them to be exact.  The cameramen zoomed their lenses on my panicked face the second I collapsed to the ground.  My vision blurry, I could barely make out the figures standing feet away, separated from me only by a string of barbed wire.  I knelt on the gravel road, legs apart, feeling like I was about to die.  My face contorted, my eyes bulged out of their sockets, I coughed uncontrollably, and my nose dripped so much snot that I looked like a baby stricken with pneumonia.
I loosened the strap of my helmet and to my left dropped my magen david, the plastic riot gear shield named after the Shield of David.  I powerlessly allowed television crews from around the world to photograph me as the gun toting, mucus spouting, occupation enforcing, disheveled Israeli soldier I appeared to be.   I rubbed my eyes with my hands but the burning only intensified.  All puffed up, my entire torso seized from pain.  I stared up at the July sun beating down on me.  I felt completely vulnerable despite the M-4 semi-automatic assault rifle still dangling around my neck.
The tear gas canister my company commander had thrown wasn’t intended for me but I received the full brunt of the blast in any case.
Every Sunday in Beit Jala, the Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the Nachshon battalion, of which I was a part, was based during the summer 2010, throngs of pro-Palestinian activists converged to disrupt the construction of the security barrier Israel began building in 2002.  These demonstrations rarely proved peaceful.
Most of the construction workers were themselves Palestinians and to protect them, twelve to fifteen soldiers from my company based blocks away were sent each week to make sure these demonstrations remained non-violent.  Since I was one of the unit’s only proficient Arabic speakers, I was always tasked with keeping the crowd under control.
When the thirty screaming protesters headed towards us in front of our barbed-wire barricade, my company commander grabbed me by the arm and shoved a megaphone into the ceramic bullet-proof vest covering my chest.
“Handle them,” he ordered.  I raised the megaphone to my mouth and calmly addressed the arriving group first in Arabic and then in English.
“Stop where you are.  This is a closed military zone.  Peaceful protest is permitted.  For your own safety, please stay back.  Do not touch the soldiers. I repeat stay back.” Garbled slogans in Arabic drowned out my words.  My modest requests seemed to incense the crowd because they only chanted louder and crept closer towards us, their shouting mouths less than a foot away from our faces.
A Palestinian teenager taunted me, waving his hands right in front of my face, shouting epithets at me, enticing me to snap in front of the half-dozen journalists present.
“Hit me in the face, you stupid soldier,” he yelled in Arabic.  “Hit me for the cameras. Please, please.”  He smiled and pointed over to a camera crew videotaping us.  “Hit my hand, hit my finger. Come on do as I say you Jewish dog,” he shouted trying to create a media spectacle for that evening’s news.  I stared blankly at him as he screamed at me, traces of his spit striking my cheek.
I looked to my left and saw three Palestinian men and two European women attempt to push past another soldier at the edge where the barbed wire strip ended and shove two female officers from Border Police out of the way.  One of the men disrespectfully tapped the soldier’s helmet to divert his attention, forcing his head backwards.
“Sir, you’ll be sorry if you touch that soldier again,” I warned in Arabic.
The female Border Police officers intercepted the two European women, ordering them to stay back.
 “These people won’t listen,” my company commander said as he grabbed the megaphone away from me.  “Stand by for my response.”
Just then, three stones thrown from the crowd struck me, two in the chest another in the head.  Thank god I wore a ceramic vest and a helmet or I would have been seriously hurt.  Other soldiers nearby were also under attack.
Reasoning with these people proved ineffective.  A different response was needed to prevent this scene from morphing into a full-fledged riot, the kind that didn’t need a megaphone translation.
My company commander lobbed a stun grenade at the ground.  People scrambled backwards before the non-lethal blast erupted, igniting a bright flash and a loud bang, temporarily disorienting all who stood in the vicinity.  A different commander threw another, sending four masked men wearing red checkered keffiyehs sprinting to a safe point behind the other protesters.
For a few moments, the chanting ceased, the hecklers were silenced.  I thought that maybe protesters would quit their antics and begin behaving like the peace seekers they professed to be.
But then, like meteors falling from the sky, more stones speedily approached from behind the crowd.  A few missed our positions as others bounced off the shields we held to protect ourselves. 
“You’re acting like Nazis, you’re all Nazis,” an English-accent demonstrator screamed.
“If we were acting like Nazis, you wouldn’t have the guts to talk back,” I snapped in English.
 My company commander calmly walked towards my position, glanced at the mayhem ensuing, and pulled out a hand held tear gas grenade to quell the stoning once and for all.  The grenade firmly in his right hand, he twisted the pin clockwise with his left, and flicked the grenade at the ground where the remaining protesters stood.  Finally, it would be over.
But a hand-tossed gas grenade generates little hesitance to intercept.  The second the canister smacked the pavement, it was picked up by a mustachioed, balding photographer with arm pit stains the size of pitas.  He tossed it quickly in the air and lamely kicked it just a few inches where it became entangled in the barbed wire.  Women screamed, the mustachioed man moaned woefully, and I took a deep breath and saw something they didn’t.  The canister’s opening was pointed directly at me.
In basic training, commanders force new recruits to do twenty pushups and sing the Israeli national anthem inside a tent filled with tear gas to get them used to the feeling if they’re ever exposed.  But I learned in those first moments that singing about the longing for Zion in an enclosed environment is nothing compared to a full canister’s concentration spraying mightily at your face.
I stood in place because I had no permission to leave but remained confident that I would overcome the effects and show the world that Israeli soldiers never falter.  That notion lasted seven seconds until my cardiovascular system panicked.
I lost track of time and the world became a haze.  I learned that the tear gas used at demonstrations causes shocking, disabling pain.  But I quickly realized that my obituary would not read death by tear gas.
When I rose from the ground I saw a much emptier scene.  Although I was the main casualty, the tear gas had worked.  The protesters fled the scene and the violence ceased.  My face still covered with mucus and tears, I continued to cough but smiled and joked with cameramen.
“I’m ready for my close-up,” I struggled to blurt out in English. “Who wants to photograph the pretty soldiers?”  I repeated myself in Hebrew and in Arabic and all the cameramen laughed. Although I genuinely feared for my life when the tear gas entered my lungs, the effects were temporary and couldn’t even kill my sense of humor.
Michael Bassin is a former Israeli army Arabic translator and the author of the upcoming memoir, I Am Not A Spy: An American Jew’s Odyssey Through the Arab World and Israeli Army.