Rock throwing has killed many Israelis, but is shooting rock-throwers justified?
This Thursday Israel’s 10-member security cabinet unanimously voted to approve a series of tougher measures against Palestinian rock and firebomb throwers.
The new measures are being adopted following a heated debate this past week over what the government and police can and can’t legally do (shoot them with live fire? lock them in jail for longer periods? penalize the parents?) to crack down on Palestinian youth who hurl stone and petrol bombs onto highways and city streets with increasing impunity.
There are no easy answers here, or simple solutions.
According to experts familiar with these cases, rock-throwing is mostly being perpetrated by unorganized and leaderless young men, making it hard for Israel’s security and intelligence forces to prevent impending attacks.
These angry Palestinian kids probably aren’t usually receiving direct orders to terrorize Jews. But they’re acting within an ideological environment that encourages and condones these attacks. In addition to incitement by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Israeli Arab leaders incite violence by spreading falsehoods about the Al Aqsa Mosque:
The police also singled out MK Hanin Zoabi, accusing her of inflaming the situation with misleading comments about the al-Aqsa Mosque, which sits atop the Mount, as is one of the holiest sites in Islam.
“The puzzling comment by MK Hanin Zoabi, as published in the media, claimed that ‘the closure of the gates of the al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslims is a dangerous step, and perhaps even unprecedented on a holiday. This is the first time that a place sacred to Muslims has been closed. It is a policy that is a declaration of war,’” the police said.
But, the statement pointed out, “Today the Temple Mount was open to Muslim worshipers only, and this claim is entirely baseless and appears designed to inflame passions, leading to clashes and harm to security forces and innocent civilians.”
As Israel continues to debate how to handle it, one thing’s for certain: after coming up with high-tech solutions to halt suicide bombings, rockets, and terror tunnels, it’s now going to have to devote more resources to fight against a “weapon dating back to David and Goliath”—the hurled rock.
Fire-Bombing and Rock-Throwing Terrorism
Rock-throwing has always been a popular mode of Palestinian protest. As Aron Heller of the Associated Press claims:
The Palestinian rock thrower emerged as an iconic image of the first uprising against Israeli occupation in the 1980s and…rock throwing has been a regular feature of demonstrations since then.”
The mainstream media often portrays throwing rocks or hurling crude incendiary devices as “a rite of passage”. But as Stephen M. Flatlow, a New Jersey attorney whose daughter was killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995, rightly remarks: “That’s the language one uses to describe a bar mitzvah, not an attempt to murder someone.”
Firebombs and hurled stones may be low-tech but they can inflict unimaginable devastation. (If video not loading, click here.)
צולם אתמול בירושלים , לא נגעתי
Posted by Gilad Hadari on Friday, November 7, 2014
Even pebbles can be deadly weapons (especially when flung via a slingshot) — no less so than firearms.
Recently we posted about a brave and courageous little girl—11 year-old Ayala Shapira—who last December was a passenger in a car driven by her father when a petrol bomb was thrown into it. As we noted, she suffered severe burns on much of her body. Ayala and her family have been trying to rebuild their lives ever since. With the help of family and friends, she’s now re-experiencing the joys of childhood. But the pain she will endure, physically and emotionally, will last a lifetime.
Stoning attacks, often with state-of-the-art slingshots that increase their lethality, have also claimed many more innocent lives.
— Andreas Fagerbakke (@afagerbakke) September 22, 2015
— Judean Peoples Front (@JudeanPF) September 20, 2015
The Holy City Rocks
In recent years, stone-throwing along with the launching of Molotov cocktails has become a near daily occurrence on some of the roadways leading into the capital city and in a number of east Jerusalem neighborhoods, the section of the city that Israel liberated from an illegal Jordanian occupation during the 1967 war.
Just a few weeks ago, in east Jerusalem’s East Talpiot-Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, the municipality reportedly distributed fire extinguishers to residents whose homes and gardens have been routinely targeted with firebombs over the past several months.
There can be no doubt that these firebombers and stone-throwers intend to murder the Jews of Jerusalem in cold blood. This isn’t some prank or merely a nuisance.
As The Jerusalem Post recently notes in a blunt editorial:
Stone-throwers are terrorists in every sense of the word, and they are out to cause harm—preferably fatal, if they ‘succeed’. Hurling rocks at moving vehicles is invariably an extreme act of malice aforethought. There are no pacifist and compassionate stoners. An act of intentional premeditated violence cannot be downplayed as nonviolent and trivialized as frivolous by harried law-enforcers, overworked prosecutors or aloof judges…The tendency internationally to often belittle the crime of stone-throwing and regard it as an expression of youthful exuberance, which is how the Arab communities which send out brainwashed youths to target Jewish traffic like to present things. Unthinkably, stoning Jews has become a popular sport which is glorified in Arab society as heroic…Attacks on innocent travelers mustn’t be belittled merely because the weapon of choice isn’t a firearm…Stones, rocks, blocks and boulders all kill… The very least the state and its legal establishment owe the public is basic protection. If this realization must be reinforced by legislation, so be it.”
In large part, the problem of ongoing stoning attacks in Jerusalem and its environs stems from Israel’s “clogged judicial system” to process cases, which means that offenders are getting negligible and ludicrously light punishments.
Back on September 18, Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan proposed not to promote judges who routinely hand out light sentences on Palestinian stone-throwers, particularly young offenders.
That proposal came under severe criticism by Miriam Naor, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who deemed it “harmful to democracy.”
The proposal isn’t likely to go anywhere. PM Netanyahu has already rejected it.
Still, Erdan has a point.
The heaviest sentence meted out to a stone-thrower this year was only 22 months—and that was in a case where a baby was critically wounded.
And, according to Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat, the judicial system “sometimes allows the guilty to go free…Throughout the last few years, even when police used to catch teenagers throwing stones, they were very, very quickly released by the courts. And so they gained confidence.”
Jerusalem residents have voiced similar complaints.
Some told reporters last week that in their neighborhoods they often see the same Palestinian teenagers throwing firebombs, getting arrested and being quickly freed, and returning only days later to attack them again.
Riots on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—considered the holiest site in Judaism and the third most sacred for Muslims—are nothing new. But a recent deadly stone-throwing attack in the capital city makes it clear that new ways of dealing with this “growing epidemic” need to be found.
In an earlier post, we reported on the September 13 violent clashes between masked rioters and police on the Temple Mount.
As we documented, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year)—one of the two holiest dates on the Jewish calendar—Israeli police responded to intelligence reports that a group of armed Palestinians were plotting to attack Jews visiting the site for the holiday.
Members of religion of peace resting in a mosque on Temple Mount between hurling rocks at Jews on religious holiday. pic.twitter.com/1wiIeTJUYz
— Rɪᴄʜᴀʀᴅ Kᴇᴍᴘ ⋁ (@COLRICHARDKEMP) September 15, 2015
The night prior, security forces found that he Temple Mount compound had been turned into a “warehouse of terror”. Pipe bombs, stones, and firecrackers had been stashed in the Al-Aqsa mosque.
In subsequent clashes, police were subject to barrages of rocks and petrol bombs.
The alleyways of the Old City turned violent for the remainder of the two-day holiday, with Palestinians attacking yeshiva (rabbinical) students on their way to the Kotel. A number of Border Police, hundreds of whom were deployed to restore calm to the city, were also wounded.
Alexander Levlovitz, a 64-year-old resident of Armon Hanatziv, a neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem where the Jews who drive there say that they’re “used to living in fear” from “constant nightly attacks” by stone-throwing Palestinian youth, was killed at the start of the holiday when his car was battered by a volley of rocks:
The stone throwers, who came from the Palestinian village of Sur Baher, attacked many other cars driving along the road connecting their village to the Jewish neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv. As rocks started raining down on him, Levlovitz lost control of his vehicle, crashed into an electrical pole and was killed. Two young family members in the car with him were injured.”
In a violent escalation, riots involving hundreds of Palestinians armed with rocks, petrol bombs, and even open paint cans soon expanded to nearly all neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, damaging buses, homes, and the city’s light rail.
Hamas and other Palestinian groups called for a “day of rage” last Friday to coincide with weekly Muslim prayers—revenge for what they termed an “assault” on the mosque and Muslim worshippers.
This past weekend, Palestinian rock-throwers attacked an Israeli vehicle traveling between Tekoa and the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa. A couple and their six-month old daughter were in the car. Ironically, according to media reports, they were driving to get their new car outfitted with shatter-proof windows when the attack occurred.
The car’s windows were smashed, but miraculously the parents and child were unhurt—a rock flew over the baby’s head but was stopped by the child’s car seat, according to the parents who described their ordeal.
— Avi Mayer (@AviMayer) September 20, 2015
The Israeli family's car windshield after the Palestinian rock attack this morning. Incredible nobody was killed. pic.twitter.com/7Q1JF9dgKG
— Avi Mayer (@AviMayer) September 20, 2015
The perpetrators are still at large.
But yesterday afternoon (EST), Israel’s media broke the news of the arrest of four Palestinians suspected in the murder of Alexander Levlovitz.
All four are reportedly between the ages of 16 and 19.
New Measures to Counter Rock-Throwing Terror
Thursday’s security cabinet decision, which relaxes existing open-fire protocols and stiffens penalties for offenders, was taken after a number of recent high-level emergency meetings and consultations between Israeli politicians, security experts, and legal officials looking for options to combat the wave of violence that’s engulfed Jerusalem and its roadways.
The re-examination of open-fire regulations convinced the security cabinet’s members that giving police officers a freer hand with live ammunition will both save lives and serve as a deterrent.
We won't accept that in Jerusalem our capital, or anywhere in Israel, that people will throw stones at cars. pic.twitter.com/eBtwO41Bqc
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) September 20, 2015
According to reports, the security cabinet agreed to back legislation to allow live ammunition in any instance in which lives are endangered; the use of .22 caliber Ruger rifles against rock-throwers; a minimum four-year prison sentence for rock-throwers and gasoline-bomb attackers over the age of 18, including jail-time and fines for minors aged 14-18; and the cancellation of National Insurance Institute welfare benefits for minors in prison.
These new rules of engagement, which were voted on despite the initial opposition of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, now authorize the police to use live-fire against people hurling stones and Molotov cocktails when the life of a civilian is threatened—and not only when a police officer’s life is in imminent danger.
Critics have countered that these eased open-fire restrictions will result in more bloodshed and escalate an already tense atmosphere. Israel’s former Shin Bet Chief, Yuval Diskin, said last week that the changed rules of engagement would “worsen the situation.”
Israel’s human rights organization B’Tselem has also condemned the decision, raising concerns over the potential for abuse.
In its statement, B’Tselem noted a number of cases in recent years where Israeli security forces have shot and killed Palestinians when they were no longer posing a mortal danger.
Now the organization thinks that trigger-happy police will also be shooting Jerusalemite Palestinians who’re just fleeing or walking away.
The IDF and police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for illegal actions, including the excessive use of live-fire.
But the reality is that in these instances thorough investigations are conducted. Soldiers, even high-ranking commanders as in one recent case, come under intense scrutiny when they fail to adhere to the rules of engagement.
That goes for the IDF troops who attacked AFP journalists in the West Bank on Friday too. An investigation is underway. But an army spokesman has already indicated that the troops who assaulted the two journalists “acted in an unauthorized manner and will face disciplinary measures.”
Investigations like this when regulations are contravened are the norm—not the exception. B’Tselem wants us to believe that in those instances when IDF troops act in ways that clearly violate approved protocols that they literally get away with murder. But that’s simply not the case.
Still, the security cabinet has recognized that changing the open-fire orders is no quick fix. Nor can they come at the expense of non-lethal measures.
In a controversial move, they’ve also called for an inquiry into the legal possibility of imposing minimum fines on the parents of rock-throwers aged 12-13, and requiring the parents of children under the age of 12 to post bonds for a year.
Israel’s security cabinet decision to modify open-fire rules against Palestinian rock and firebomb throwers in Jerusalem is the start of a new approach to the sustained Palestinian rioting that has plagued the capital city in recent years.
On Saturday Secretary General of the PLO and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denounced the move reportedly accusing Israel of continuing to:
incite against Palestinian lives, with a culture of hate that dehumanizes the whole nation…the new decision expands the level under which Palestinian demonstrators’ lives can be directly targeted…It [is] a mere pretext to justify the escalating crimes against the people of Palestine.”
Erekat also warned that he would report on the new change in policy to the International Criminal Court and called on the international community to take “effective and consequential measures in order to protect our people under occupation, and to end the Israeli government’s systematic oppressive policies and crimes committed against Palestinians on a daily basis.”
Palestinians are entitled to march and protest, and to exercise freedom of speech. But apparently for some bizarre reason Mr. Erekat thinks that this right includes lethal Molotov cocktail-throwing and wielding a deadly slingshot.
As noted in the security cabinet’s statement, the easing of live-fire regulations will apply only under specific circumstances where civilian lives are in imminent danger. Permission is only being granted in very limited instances and there’ll be “lots of restrictions”. Police won’t be allowed to use live-fire during mass demonstrations, for example.
Experts claim that permitting officers to shoot live, yet relatively weak, rounds from Ruger rifles offers a quick neutralizing response against stone-throwers and firebombers without being as “potentially deadly” as heavier weapons:
[Israeli] Central Command soldiers have been using low caliber Ruger rifles for a long time to deal with life-threatening rioters. These means are justified and proven methods of quelling very violent and dangerous incidents, and saving lives.”
But ending the surge of violent attacks on Jerusalem’s streets and roadways will take more than easing the rules governing the use of live-fire.
Israel will need to invest in new surveillance and advanced tracking software to “make charges stick” against stone and firebomb throwers.
The deployment of more uniformed and undercover police, and the use of “breathing checkpoints” (where residents can move in and out by car or foot, but are subject to searches) at the entrances and exits of Palestinian neighborhoods where armed gangs now come and go with impunity will also be required.
Other “stabilization efforts”, including “stepped up police presence and law enforcement and legislative changes to enact more severe punishment,” are also likely to prove effective.
As Kobi Michael and Oded Eran of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) write in an insightful new paper, these measures can be combined with a “diplomatic and public relations effort to expose the true nature of the events on the Temple Mount to the international community, with an emphasis on the riots and violent confrontations aroused by Palestinian groups.”
Heavy fines for parents who fail in their responsibility to keep their children out of trouble and harm’s way and administrative detention for adult stone-throwers can also round out the mix of new initiatives.
These aren’t likely to be quick fixes. But half-measures are no longer working.
In a statement released on Friday, the Jerusalem Police said that they’ve arrested 137 suspected stone and Molotov cocktail throwing Palestinians in the eastern part of Jerusalem in the last ten days. Some 61 of the suspects are minors, according to the police.
Gidon, a 27-year-old from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv who requested that his last name not be published puts it well:
Listen, it doesn’t matter if a nine-year-old throws a rock at my head or a 20-year-old throws a rock at my head. It’s a physical threat to my life. It doesn’t matter which hand throws the rock. Anyone who tells you any differently has never had a rock thrown at their head.”
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is co-editor of the book, Jerusalem: Conflict and Collaboration in a Contested City, published last year by Syracuse University Press. She lived in Jerusalem from 1985-1990.DONATE
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