Israel approves harsher punishment for stone-throwers

AP News
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Posted: Sep 24, 2015 4:20 PM
Israel approves harsher punishment for stone-throwers

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Thursday approved harsher measures to combat the practice of stone-throwing amid a recent surge in Palestinian violence, widening the rules of engagement for police and vowing to raise minimum penalties for offenders to four years' imprisonment.

The measures, approved by the Security Cabinet, allow police officers to fire live ammunition when there is an "immediate and concrete danger to police or civilians," according to a government statement.

The development came as a Palestinian man died on Thursday from his wounds after being shot by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank last week.

According to the measures, officers will also be permitted to fire from 0.22 caliber "Ruger" rifles, an American-made firearm that police said uses a smaller bullet and would offer a quicker response against those throwing stones or firebombs or lighting fireworks. The rifle was not allowed previously, the police said.

"We intend to change the norm that has become established here, that the state of Israel allows these deadly and murderous objects to be thrown without response and without being thwarted," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a statement from his office.

In recent months, stone-throwing has become a near daily occurrence in some neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, the section of the city captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians as their capital. But after an Israeli motorist was killed last week when his car crashed after being pelted with stones on the eve of the Jewish New Year, the Israeli government pledged to crack down on the practice.

The Cabinet also decided to advance legislation to impose a minimum penalty of four years imprisonment for those throwing rocks, according to the statement.

It said steps would be taken to jail and fine stone-throwing minors aged 14-18 and even their parents, who could also face various fines.

Netanyahu's government has been pushing for tougher rules of engagement for police and tougher minimum sentences for offenders, though Israel's attorney general said this week he opposed such changes and insisted the existing regulations were sufficient.

Tensions have been rising in Jerusalem following last week's deadly rock-throwing incident, along with days of clashes at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site. Since the beginning of last week, Israeli police said that 137 suspects were arrested over "public disturbances," including 61 minors.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the newly approved regulations meant that "police officers have further tools that can be used in life-threatening situations only."

The main source of tension is the situation at the hilltop compound in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, which is also home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The site is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Calls by a group of religious Jews to visit the site on the eve of the Jewish New Year sparked rumors among Palestinians that Israel was planning to disrupt the delicate status quo governing the site and take it over.

Muslim demonstrators armed with rocks and firecrackers holed themselves up in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and clashed with police for three consecutive days.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel for the clashes in particularly harsh language, and insisted that none of Jerusalem's holy sites belonged to Israel. "They are all ours and we will not let them desecrate it with their filthy feet," he said.

Netanyahu has repeated his insistence that Israel would uphold the status quo and called on Abbas' Palestinian Authority to "stop the wild incitement."

"All remarks regarding the intention to harm the Islamic holy places are utter nonsense. It is not we who are changing the status quo," he said. "It is those who bring firebombs and explosives into the mosques who are changing the status quo."

Israeli police barred all non-Muslims from entering the holy site Thursday during a major Muslim holiday.

On Thursday, a Palestinian man died from his wounds after being shot by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank last week, the man's brother said. The Israeli army said it shot at a group of Palestinians hurling a firebomb at a passing car on a road between Jewish settlements, hitting one.

Issa Khatatbeh said his family did not know the circumstances surrounding his brother Ahmad Khatatbeh's death. He said his brother was deaf and unable to speak.