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Not much of a weapons system. EPA/Abed Al Haslhamoun

In the West Bank, rocks kill (but mostly Palestinians)

In October 2000 I was in my first year of military service as a photographer for the IDF magazine. I was in the north of the Gaza strip, in what were to be the first moments of the Second Intifada, filming a group of Palestinian stone throwers until I was interrupted by a jarring blow to my helmet.

When I got up, the looks I got from the other soldiers told me that the newly struck fountain of blood gushing from my left temple needed dressing up, so I was evacuated to a hospital and had several stitches that would forever prevent me from shaving off my left eyebrow.

Stone throwing can be lethal, especially when thrown at moving cars, but it very rarely is. The state of Israel funds the reinforcement of windshields for all Israeli vehicles in the West Bank, including the one that belongs to the commanding officer of the Binyamin district of the West Bank, seen in the video below, published by Israeli NGO B'tselem.

B'tselem: Israeli commander shot and killed Palestinian teen, Muhammad Ali Kosba.

What the senior military commander in the video above decided to do after a rock smashed his windshield (but did not harm him or any of his crew) was to disembark and shoot dead the suspected thrower.

There is little I can offer by way of analysis from an operational point of view, my own experience with a flying stone was as fuzzy as it was direct, but I find it important to add to the conversation that the shots Colonel Yisrael Shomer fired at the back of 17-year-old Muhammed Ali-Kosba were preceded by a campaign designated to paint the very act of rock throwing as one of deadly violence that should be countered with lethal force, a preposterous construct that is becoming widely accepted in Israel.

Lethal force

In the past few years a major campaign has promoted the message that “rocks can kill”. It was initiated by settler representatives whose constituency faces a daily reality of roadside stoning in the occupied West Bank.

The campaign commenced after in September 2011, rocks hurled from a moving vehicle into the front windscreen of a car driving in the opposite direction killed Asher Palmer and his infant son – and eventually the throwers were convicted of murder.

While stone attacks on moving vehicles are dangerous, even the judge who presided over this extreme case did not agree that stone throwing is a deadly threat. He rejected the charge of “attempted murder” in another case of four Palestinians accused of stone throwing, arguing that:

Unfortunately, hundreds of cases of stone throwing are brought before the military court every year. They rarely lead to injury, and death is even rarer. Therefore it is impossible to determine that the natural result of hurling stones at a moving car is the death of the driver or any of the passengers, unless there are other, more severe circumstances.

Stones can be murder

This didn’t stop settler representatives from advancing precisely the notion that any rock throwing incident is an attempted murder and should be dealt with lethal force. The chairman of the Gush Etzion regional council, Davidi Pearl, for example said that: “every stoning attempt is attempted murder – it needs to be addressed as a murderer looking to kill”, while more recently the Yesha council (settlement council) called upon the government to “to treat any rock throwing as attempted murder and deal with the terrorism with an iron fist”.

The campaign won some success with the public diplomacy arm of the IDF. Rocks can kill is the title of one in a series of three blog posts by the Israel Defence Forces (another is: The Deadly Reality of Palestinian Rock Throwing). The posts date to March 2013, February 2014 and April 2014 and all offer a similar chronology of six lethal rock-throwing incidents in the west bank over nearly 30 years.

Muhammed Ali-Kosba was shot dead by security forces in July 2015 after allegedly throwing stones. EPA/Alaa Bardarneh

A similar message was carried by Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with characteristic flair. In April 2013, during the national memorial service to the victims of terror he declared that stones are lethal weapons and explained that:

The terror of stones from ambush joins the terror of firebombs, the terror of knives, the terror of shooting and rockets, the terror of time bombs and car bombs and suicide bombers. All of these have claimed 2,500 victims from among us.

Containment or deterrence?

But the campaign had limited success when it came to the actual policing of the West Bank. The former chief of central command and military governor of the West Bank, Nitzan Alon, vehemently resisted the equation stones-equals-attempted murder.

He initiated a military doctrine of conflict management set to dissuade shooting incidents of the kind that was rampant during the Second Intifada that he termed “containment”, which he elaborates in English here:

Nitzan Alon speaks about the policy of ‘containment’

This policy relied on cooperation with the security forces of the Palestinian Authority and on gaining favour with Palestinians through a regime of permits. According to this doctrine, civil disturbances such as stone throwing are an acceptable level of violence that does not require more than responses of limited force. Attacks by settler extremists were to be handled under more or less equal terms.

This policy was not popular among settlers and the right who challenged in particular the strict rules of engagement introduced by Alon. He was accused by settlers of having a leftist agenda, and was the subject of protests and even attacks.

A new policy?

Following the campaign laws pertaining to rock throwing were changed in 2014 to increase the maximum penalty for stone-throwing to 20 years in prison (while the existing law already stipulated a maximum 10-year sentence, courts tended to give much shorter sentences). The correction, which – according to the MPs who introduced it – stemmed out of policing needs, was meant to ensure harsher sentences.

Despite approval in parliament, this was binned when the former government was dispersed. But in March 2015 a new, more radical, Netanyahu government took charge. The justice minister, Ayelet Shaked – a representative of the right-wing Jewish Home party – revived the correction, fast-tracked it and extended the categories of conviction, making the meting out of harsher sentences even more likely.

At the same time, a veritable Israeli clampdown on the West Bank that included the freezing of tax funds, planned power-cuts and a large-scale military drill further challenged previous security arrangements. Finally, Alon was replaced as chief of central command, placing the existing policy of containment in question.

On July 3, Colonel Yisrael Shomer stepped out of his vehicle at the Kalandia checkpoint after his window had been smashed and shot and killed the suspected assailant. The new general of central command, Major General Roni Numa, immediately stated that he “fully backed the brigade commander and the way he handled the incident, in which the force was faced with real mortal threat”.

Besides him, government ministers, and opposition members all lent their support to the colonel’s actions by using the same line: “rocks kill”. And so – as we’ve seen – they all too often do.

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