JERUSALEM // Israel is stockpiling crowd-control weapons and preparing security forces for Palestinian protests planned to coincide with a push for statehood at the United Nations.
Israel’s police and military have reportedly gone on a spending spree in the past month importing everything from extra tear-gas launchers to Belgian-born stallions in anticipation of the Palestinian bid to win recognition at the United Nations.
The preparations come after a string of deadly responses to pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have left Israel sensitive to international scrutiny of its tactics. Israel is also fearful of inflaming widespread Palestinian anger.
While acknowledging the potential for violent confrontations, Palestinian officials, who have called for peaceful rallies in September, say the Israeli preparations are overblown.
“I haven’t seen any Palestinian individual or group planning at all for violent unrest,” said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesperson for the West Bank’s governing Palestinian Authority.
“So the question should be directed back to the Israelis: are they interested in pushing the Palestinians back to violence?”
Some Israeli officials have sought to play down the chances of such a confrontation. Asked in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio if September would come and go peacefully, Ehud Barak, the defence minister, said: “My assessment and hope is yes.”
Police and military forces appear to be taking few chances, however.
An internal police newsletter obtained by the Associated Press shows officers gearing up for clashes, doubling the number of riot police to more than 2,000.
The newsletter said extra non-lethal riot-control devises, such as water canons and tear-gas launchers, have been imported, including additional amounts of a foul-smelling liquid, or “skunk”, used to disperse crowds. Another machine called the “scream”, which emits carefully calibrated sound waves that induce nauseating symptoms from its targets has also been purchased.
Even 15 horses for riot-control officers have recently been shipped in from Belgium.
Nissim Mor, commander of the police operations branch, wrote in the newsletter that the preparations reflected a hope by police “to avoid casualties in the event of [UN endorsement of] Palestinian independence”.
That also includes beefed-up training, such as a secret “September training camp” in southern Israel where soldiers are reportedly being schooled in non-violent responses to Palestinian demonstrations.
Giora Eiland, a former major general in Israel’s army and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, expressed confidence in the security establishment’s readiness for September. But he cautioned that Israeli forces would not hesitate to use deadly force if they felt threatened.
“The instructions will be very strict – not to let any Palestinian protester take control any of the Israeli positions, whether it be a military position or a civilian settlement” in the West Bank, he said
The more pressing concern had become avoiding a response that could incur negative media coverage and reactions from the international community.
Israel’s image is still reeling from the way it has dealt with a number of pro-Palestinian demonstrations that resulted in civilians being killed. Last year, a raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists on-board whilein may more than a dozen protesters were shot dead by Israeli sniper fire on the country’s borders with Lebanon and Syria.
Hurriyah Ziada, a member of a Palestinian youth movement that promotes non-violent actions against Israel’s occupation, called talk of a grand Palestinian strategy in September nonsense.
“There’s nothing planned,” said the 22-year-old sociology student at the West Bank’s Birzeit University. “If something’s going to happen, it’s going to be spontaneous. I don’t know why the Israelis are saying this. Maybe it’s to distract attention away from their internal problems.”
Israel is grappling with its own wave of popular protests. For the past several weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to decry soaring housing prices and high living costs.
Writing in the newspaper Haaretz yesterday, Yossi Sarid expressed concern that Israeli officials would use the spectre of Palestinian riots as a reason to thwart the country’s still-expanding protest movement.
“As usual, the authorities are playing the security card: The Israel Police are readying for riots come September and don’t have the manpower to deal with two theaters,” he wrote.