A death that could have been avoided

Rights groups have been warning for years that tear gas canisters can kill. Last Friday, it finally happened.

Relatives of Mustafa Tamimi_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Relatives of Mustafa Tamimi_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Every death is a tragedy for the family and friends of the deceased. Yet a death you can see coming from miles away, a needless death that could have been prevented, is a tragedy about which hard lessons must be learned.
Such is the case of Mustafa Tamimi, the 28-year-old Palestinian man killed in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh last Friday. Tamimi was shot at close range with a tear gas canister. The canister hit him in the face, causing massive bleeding, and he died the following day.
But Tamimi was throwing stones, some will argue, and it is true: Shortly before his death, Tamimi was filmed running after an armored jeep and throwing stones. This is indeed a criminal offense.
But there is no death penalty for stonethrowing – as the army itself affirms. The soldiers were not in any danger, and Tamimi could have been arrested and charged for his offense.
Tear gas is intended as a non-lethal crowd-control tool. The canister that delivers the gas is not intended as a weapon. For this reason, IDF regulations prohibit firing tear gas directly at people. However, the military regularly and blatantly violates its own regulations in Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank.
Direct firing of tear gas canisters has resulted in at least 13 serious injuries and one death besides Tamimi’s: In April 2009, Bassem Abu-Rahmah, from the village of Bil’in, was killed by a tear gas canister that struck him in the chest. B’Tselem video volunteers filmed many recent cases of canisters being directly fired that did not result in injury. Yet we knew it was only a matter of time if the practice were not stopped.
SO B’TSELEM documented the cases and tried to wake up the military to this danger. We sent letters and met with senior military officials – the commander of the Judea and Samaria Brigade, the Military Advocate-General and his staff, the IDF Legal Adviser’s Office for the West Bank – demanding that commanders clarify to soldiers serving on the ground that firing tear gas canisters directly at a person is illegal. We also provided extensive video documentation of this illegal practice.
The military’s response to our appeals showed an infuriating gap between words and actions. Two years ago, Col. Sharon Afek, then the IDF’s legal adviser for Judea and Samaria, responded that “direct firing [of tear-gas canisters] at persons is prohibited” and that “very soon, an explicit and broad directive will be issued that will prohibit the firing of a tear-gas canister directly at a person.” But still the practice continued.
This past July, following further requests by B’Tselem, Maj. Uri Sagi from that same office wrote that “following your letter, we have again clarified to the forces operating in Central Command the rules relating to firing of tear-gas canisters at persons, including the prohibition on directly firing a tear-gas canister at a person.” But still the practice continued.
Just a few months ago, I met with then-commander of the Judea and Samaria Brigade Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon. He assured me that the direct firing of tear gas was illegal and no longer occurred.
AND STILL the practice continued. And last Friday it claimed yet another victim.
The day of Tamimi’s death was International Human Rights Day. The fundamental principle underlying human rights is that they are inherent to all of us as human beings. It is not only the innocent who have rights. Law-breakers, too – in this case, stone-throwers – do not lose basic rights, like the right to life. The military has the authority and all the tools to respond to such offenses in a manner that adheres to its legal obligations. No one should have been killed on Friday.
So who is responsible for this needless death? Certainly the soldier who pulled the trigger must be investigated – the Military Police are already conducting such an investigation. However, this is not enough. It is wrong to hold this one soldier responsible as if he were operating in a vacuum. As far as we know, no one was punished for the earlier cases, and the practice continued. This soldier, in fact, was operating in an environment where soldiers routinely employ this practice, where commanding officers stand by, where the highest echelons of the military knew of and failed to stop the extensive violation of their own regulations.
So when we attempt to draw legal and moral conclusions about Mustafa Tamimi’s death, we need to look much further than that one soldier.

The writer is executive director of B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.