After doctor’s severe eye injury, physicians urge police to stop using water cannons

Tal Weissbach, a doctor volunteering at an anti-government protest in Jerusalem, may suffer permanent vision loss after hit by a spray seemingly against police regulations

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Tal Weissbach after being struck by a police water cannon at a Jerusalem protest on June 17, 2024. (Courtesy)
Tal Weissbach after being struck by a police water cannon at a Jerusalem protest on June 17, 2024. (Courtesy)

The Israel Medical Association and other physicians’ groups called Tuesday for an immediate investigation into the police’s use of a water cannon that injured a doctor volunteering at an anti-government protest in Jerusalem the previous evening.

Dr. Tal Weissbach, a gynecologist, was wearing a brightly colored vest identifying her as a physician on volunteer duty when she was hit in the face by the high-powered spray. She later checked herself into Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, where she works. According to the White Coats physicians’ activist group, her eyesight is at risk.

“I take care of people every day regardless of who or what they are and I expect the same from Israeli police officers,” Weissbach said on Tuesday at a press conference at Sheba. “We all have to protect citizens. If the police fail to do this, we will have to act, whether through strikes or by legal means.”

The incident came on the heels of the arrest of volunteer doctor Udi Baharav as he administered first aid to an injured woman at a June 8 rally in Tel Aviv that called for elections and a deal to free hostages held in Gaza.

According to a statement from the White Coats and No Mental Health Without Democracy, Baharav also wore a vest identifying him as medical staff.

Physicians’ groups have long expressed grave concerns about excessive police violence against protesters, in particular volunteer doctors who are on hand to treat the injured and ill.

Last week, Israeli Medical Association (IMA) chairman Prof. Zion Hagay sent letters to Health Minister Uriel Busso and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, demanding an immediate end to police violence against doctors and demonstrators in general.

In a statement from the IMA Tuesday, Hagay said the use of water cannons on Weissback “is in complete contradiction to all procedures and every norm in a democratic regime.”

Amid the judicial overhaul protests last July, Israeli physicians claimed that the police violated their regulations on the use of water cannons.

Regulations state that if the use of a water cannon is justified, the machine must be at least 20 meters from the people targeted and the spray must not be directed at the upper body and certainly not at heads.

Anti-government protesters face off with police outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, on June 17, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also in July, the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians and the Israel Society of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery issued a letter to Shabtai asking that police suspend all use of water cannons.

The letter characterized the cannons as “weapons” that cause “exceptional and serious” damage by spraying water at high pressure.

Water cannons can spray 20 liters per second to a distance of 70 meters. This kind of pressure can lead to a body being damaged directly.

“There is a high risk of injury from a direct hit to the face by a water cannon. These include serious and irreversible injuries to the eye and eye socket, including blindness,” the physicians’ letter warned.

Brothers in Arms member Udi Ori at the hospital on July 7, 2023, after suffering an eye injury when taking a direct hit from a water cannon during a protest against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on July 5, 2023. (Courtesy)

According to the guidelines, water cannons are only permitted if protesters use violence against the police.

However, witnesses said that Weissbach did not pose any threat and was standing off to the side on a sidewalk.

The internal guidelines also prohibit the use of water cannons in a way that could cause individuals to be thrown against a wall, yet a 63-year-old woman was severely injured in this way at Monday’s protest, according to reports.

In response to a query from The Times of Israel, a police spokesperson said Monday’s protest was marked by “disorder and violent rioting” including “setting fires on the street, physical confrontations with police officers including attacks on officers in several instances, and attempts to breach police barriers towards the Prime Minister’s private residence contrary to legal directives.”

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, director of Ichilov Medical Center in Tel Aviv, called on the Justice Ministry’s Department of Internal Police Investigations to probe the events and bring those responsible to justice. He also urged doctors “not to be afraid.”

“In democratic countries, police do not beat doctors who help protesters,” he said. “It is unthinkable that a doctor who is on the scene to provide treatment would find themselves attacked or detained.”

Renee Ghert-Zand contributed to this story.

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