World's most exposed place to tear gas is in Palestine

2017-12-26 23:08
A Palestinian protestor throws a tear gas canister back towards Israeli security forces during clashes at Atarot checkpoint on the northern outskirts of Jerusalem on December 19, 2017.  (Abbas Momani, AFP)

A Palestinian protestor throws a tear gas canister back towards Israeli security forces during clashes at Atarot checkpoint on the northern outskirts of Jerusalem on December 19, 2017. (Abbas Momani, AFP)

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Doha - Aida Refugee Camp in the occupied West Bank is the most exposed place to tear gas on the planet, according to a ground-breaking new study.

The report by the Human Rights Centre of the University of California at Berkeley finds that Israel's security forces are guilty of carrying out "widespread" 'frequent' and "indiscriminate" use of tear gas against Palestinian refugees.

The study - which is  said to be the first to analyse the effects of the use of tear gas in the West Bank - found that 100 per cent of residents surveyed in Aida refugee camp were exposed to tear gas.

The report, titled No Safe Space: Health Consequences of Tear Gas Exposure Among Palestine Refugees, study was carried out in the summer of this year on Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps near Bethlehem.

It is due to be released in full on Thursday but Al Jazeera has been given exclusive access to its findings.

Constant and unpredictable use of tear gas

"We found that the constant and unpredictable use of tear gas in Palestine refugee camps has a devastating effect on the mental and physical health of residents - especially the most vulnerable, including pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people already in ill health," said the report's co-author Dr Rohini Haar, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center and a doctor with Physicians for Human Rights.

The study reveals that refugee camps are among the most vulnerable to tear-gas exposure in the occupied Palestinian territories.

It found that all of the 236 individuals surveyed in Aida Camp were exposed  to tear gas in the past year, of which 84 percent were exposed in the home.

Residents say the use of tear gas by the Israeli army was "primarily unprovoked".

Densely-populated camp

According to the study, residents of several refugee camps in the occupied Palestinian territory including Aida have reported exposure to tear gas two to three times a week for more than a year, but in some months, almost every day.

Aida is home to some 6,400 Palestinian refugees living in area of just 0.017sq km, making it one of the most densely populated places in the world.

Two years ago, an Israeli soldier was filmed warning residents of the camp: "People of Aida refugee camp, we are the occupation forces. You throw stones, and we will hit you with gas until you all die. The children, the youth, the old people - you will all die."

"I think it is really hard for people who are not sitting in Aida camp to understand the kind of levels of tear gas we are talking about," Dr Haar told Al Jazeera.

She said the study shows "all body systems were affected" as a result of frequent exposure to tear gas.

 A Palestinian protestor throws a tear gas canister back towards Israeli security forces during clashes at Atarot checkpoint on the northern outskirts of Jerusalem on December 19, 2017.  (Abbas Momani, AFP)

"People describe neurological systems like fainting or headaches, tingling, numbness and then nausea and vomiting, chest pains - everybody's system is affected by this," Dr Haar said.

The Israeli army did not answer Al Jazeera's request for a comment on the findings of the study.

However, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the body responsible for providing service to Palestinian refugees, has confronted the Israeli authorities with the report's findings.

The study says the findings regarding the frequent use of tear gas by the Israeli army are consistent with media reports and UNRWA's  documentation of ISF utilisation of these chemicals in the camps.

US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital on December 6 and the ensuing protests have increased the exposure of Palestinians to tear gas to an "almost daily occurrence", the study says.

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Respondents to the "observational study" reported diverse symptoms from contact with tear gas, including loss of consciousness, miscarriage, breathing difficulties [including asthma], coughing, dizziness, rashes, severe pain, allergic dermatitis, headaches and neurological irritability, blunt trauma from canister injuries, and more.

"I think when people hear of tear gas, they see it from the perspective of what they see in their own countries and from their own experience. No one else experiences this level of tear gas," Dr Haar told Al Jazeera.

Homes and schools in Aida are not designed to protect against tear gas and there is no way to avoid it or mitigate the effects, the study says.

Firing near homes

Last Friday, Al Jazeera spent the day at the Aida camp, on the northern edge of the city of Bethlehem.

During the course of the day the Israeli army deployed hundreds of tear-gas canisters into a small crowd of protesters in an area bordering the camp.

Later in the day, limited clashes spread to the camp and the Israeli army responded with more tear gas.  

"I came back home from a wedding and I found 25 gas canisters near my home," Sana, a resident of the camp, told Al Jazeera.

At about 3pm on Friday, an Israeli army jeep chased children in the narrow alleys of Aida, firing stun grenades and tear gas in the middle of the densely populated camp, a regular occurrence according to the inhabitants of the camp.

The study warns against deploying tear gas near homes because it violates United Nations Code of Conduct and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

"Our life here in the camp is filled with tear gas, filled with stun grenades, filled with skunk water. It is the life of a refugee. What can we do?" said 30-year-old Sabreen, the mother of a Palestinian prisoner.

So excessive is the use of tear gas, in the northern edge of Bethlehem and in Aida camp, Al Jazeera witnessed many people wearing gas masks.

Gas masks are normally available to members of the press and field paramedics who stay close to friction points. But in Bethlehem and in Aida this is not the case, and many residents of the camp routinely carry the costly and hard to obtain masks.

Psychological effects from "indiscriminate' and 'constant' use of tear gas by the Israeli army against residents of Aida were also observed.

"I think it is clear that there is significant psychological impacts I think those are diagnosable," Dr Harr said.

Because of the random nature of the Israeli security forces raids, Aida camp residents find them themselves "perpetually on edge, fearing the next attack".

On Christmas night alone, an Israeli raid on the camp led to the arrest of eight men, including three pairs of brothers.

'It is poison'

The consequences of this constant state of fear and worry is that residents of the camps experience increased levels of psychological distress and overall poor health.

Amal Manasra, 27, a resident of Aida, spoke with Al Jazeera about her infant's recent exposure to tear gas.

"Recently my daughter Amjaad became exposed to tear gas. They [the Israeli army] fired a bomb and it settled near our home's door. The oxygen level was zero ... she was suffocating ... we carried her to the hospital ... she spent seven days there."

Amal said the people of Aida need help as there are concerns about long-term effects from tear-gas exposure.

"We are in an area we are exposed to shootings daily, to smelling tear gas. I have kids. The gas leaks into the house through windows and from under the door," Amal said.

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Dr Haar told Al Jazeera that "PTSD, a sense of helplessness, anxiety, sleeplessness can all be triggered by contact with tear gas".

Meanwhile, people are also reporting that the gas has become more potent.

"This is not tear gas; it is poison," Thaer, a resident of Aida, told Al Jazeera.

Dr Haar says 'the Israeli government is obligated to disclose the composition of the tear gas' in order to find a treatment for the symptoms.

"What exactly is in the tear gas? is it just CS or is it a new form?" Dr Haar said.

Chris Gunness, UNRWA's chief spokesperson, says the "report raises serious concerns about the use of tear gas in heavily built up areas such as the refugee camps in Bethlehem".

"The widespread, indiscriminate and frequent use of tear gas exposes refugees including our own staff to health risks, but at this stage, it is impossible for health professionals to fully assess these risks and the long-term impact of prolonged and regular exposure," he told Al Jazeera.

"It is clear that the psychological impact on young people surveyed is significant and that the development and educational prospects of children are being affected."

Read more on:    palestine  |  israel  |  human rights

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