x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Israel's 'skunk' spray for protests is on the nose: rights groups

Claims of public relations ploy behind stinking liquid spray that smells of a rotting corpse and which no soap or perfume can remove.

A Palestinian stone-thrower jumps as a water cannon containing ‘skunk’ spray is fired by Israeli security forces during clashes at a weekly protest in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin.
A Palestinian stone-thrower jumps as a water cannon containing ‘skunk’ spray is fired by Israeli security forces during clashes at a weekly protest in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin.

NABI SALEH, West Bank // Imagine taking a chunk of rotting corpse from a stagnant sewer, placing it in a blender and spraying the filthy liquid in your face. Your gag reflex goes off the charts and you cannot escape, because the nauseating stench persists for days.

This is "skunk", a fearsome but non-lethal tool in Israel's arsenal of weapons for crowd control. It comes in armoured tanker lorry fitted with a cannon that can spray a jet of stinking fluid over crowds who know how to cope with plain old tear gas.

While the army calls skunk an attempt to minimise casualties, human-rights groups dismiss it as a fig leaf for the use of deadlier force against protesters in the occupied West Bank.

For although recent years have been among the quietest of the 45-year-old occupation, Israel has been unable to stop an epidemic of local demonstrations that often turn into clashes.

Skunk is certainly a repellent, but not a complete deterrent. The protesters are fouled but not foiled.

On a Friday in the West Bank's rugged hills, battle lines are drawn for another day of protest.

Gangly Palestinian youths in jeans are ready to let fly stones from homemade slings at Israeli soldiers down the main road of Nabi Saleh village, whose residents demand access to a local spring seized by Israeli settlers.

The soldiers form a phalanx around their new weapon of war.

"We run away fast when it comes at us, but we don't quit," said a local boy clutching a rock, his dark eyes framed by the oval opening of a black T-shirt wrapped around his face.

"They think they're pretty smart for inventing it, but they still move on to the tear gas, bullets, and breaking into our homes, just the same as usual," he said.

The skunk lorry makes its charge, scattering the youths up into the town, where the armed Israelis follow.

"How can you describe this stuff?" said Muad Tamimi, whose petrol station on the front line of Nabi Saleh's standoffs is often bathed in the spray. "It's beyond foul water, like a dead body and rotting food together, which no soap or perfume can take off - I'm hit with it and nobody goes near me for days."

Developed by a private Israeli company and first deployed by the army in 2008, skunk is an organic brew of baking powder, yeast, and some ingredients kept secret. It is harmless to health and designed to reduce casualties, the Israelis say. "Every attempt is made to minimise the risk of casualties among the rioters, as well as minimising the risk towards security forces," the army said.

For the army, skunk, and a less-used, focused noise beam called "scream", are proof of defence minister's Ehud Barak's claim that Israel's is "the most moral army in the world", pioneering non-lethal weapons.

"We don't have any intention of harming these civilians," said the army's spokesperson Avital Leibovich.

"However, the number of security personnel injured in these riots is actually increasing."

Rights groups question the army's motives, dismissing the rhetoric and the inventions as a public relations ploy to conceal the harsh means used in what they claim is a campaign to stamp out legitimate opposition to the occupation.