JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli human rights group on Monday accused the military of "extensively and systematically" violating its own rules of engagement in suppressing Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank, contributing to dozens of deaths in recent years.
According to a report by the B'Tselem group, a total of 56 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with the Israeli military since 2005. The vast majority — 46 of them — were killed when live ammunition was fired at stone throwers.
B'Tselem cited two "main problems" with Israeli crowd-control tactics. First, it said the wording of open-fire regulations was "problematic and deficient."
"Second, the regulations are extensively and systematically violated, and the military does not take the necessary action to end these violations," it said.
The Israeli military dismissed the report as "biased," and said it focused on incidents that are old or still under investigation. It called specific incidents in the report exceptions to military policy, not the rule.
Palestinians routinely demonstrate against Israel's occupation of the West Bank. The clashes frequently spiral into violence, with protestors hurling stones and firebombs at Israeli forces.
Israel has developed a number of what it calls "nonlethal" means of crowd control over the past two decades, including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, paintballs and water cannons. There is also the "scream" — a device that disperses crowds by generating extremely loud sounds — and a foul-smelling spray known as "the skunk."
Israeli security officials say live fire is to be used only in life-threatening situations.
But the B'Tselem report said Israel often uses its nonlethal weapons improperly. Six Palestinians have been killed by rubber bullets since 2005, and two were killed by tear gas canisters, it said.
In addition, the group said that Israeli forces often use live fire unnecessarily.
"Over the past seven years, at least 46 Palestinians have been killed when live ammunition was fired at unarmed stone-throwers," B'Tselem said.
While the group said further investigation was needed to determine how many of these deaths involved improper use of live fire, it said it "has documented incidents in which live ammunition was fired under circumstances that cannot be described as life-threatening to the soldiers."
"In responding to demonstrations and 'disturbances of the peace' in the West Bank, the Israeli security forces employ various crowd control weapons that are supposed to be non-lethal, if used properly," it said.
"In practice, members of the security forces make almost routine use of these weapons in unlawful, dangerous ways, and the relevant Israeli authorities do too little to prevent the recurrence of this conduct," it concluded.
The group urged the military to enforce its rules of engagement, prosecute forces who violate these rules, restrict the use of live ammunition and rubber-coated bullets to instances of mortal danger, and prohibit the firing of tear-gas canisters directly at individuals.
In its response, the military said it has "clearly defined" rules of engagement determined by operational considerations and legal consultation. It said soldiers are regularly trained about these rules.
It said it "does everything in its power to ensure that the use of riot dispersal means is done in accordance with the rules of engagement, minimizing collateral damage and maintaining stability and security in the region."