Physicians urge police to suspend water cannon use after protesters badly wounded

Injuries indicate police ignoring own guidelines that prohibit crowd-control weapon from being aimed at upper body — especially the head

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a highway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/ Oren Ziv)
Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a highway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/ Oren Ziv)

As Israel faces a fateful week, with Monday’s first Knesset vote on the coalition’s bill to eliminate the judicial tool of “reasonableness,” Israeli physicians are warning the police not to use excessive force against those protesting the overhaul.

The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians and the Israel Society of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery issued a July 8 letter to Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, asking that Israeli police suspend the use of water cannons, at least until their injurious use against protesters on July 5 is investigated.

The letter characterizes water 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 amounts to the pressure of five to 10 bars or even higher. This kind of pressure can lead to a body being damaged directly, or as the result of being knocked against a wall or the ground, or by flying debris,” the letter says.

“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,” it continues.

The letter follows the injury of 14 protesters, who were brought to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on July 5, after Israelis took to the streets following Tel Aviv police chief Amichai Eshed’s resignation, after he alleged he was to be removed from his post for refusing to use undue force against protesters.

Six of the protesters sustained eye and skull injuries due to police use of water cannons.

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)

Among those injured was Udi Ori, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force. He required eye surgery after taking a direct hit from a water cannon during the protest, and has said that he will no longer volunteer for reserve duty, vowing not to serve under a “dictatorship.”

Arbel Moyal, 18, was also hit by water cannon during Wednesday night’s protests on the Ayalon Highway. “I was slightly injured after being sprayed in the back,” Moyal told Channel 12 on Sunday. The force of the jet spray sent him sliding to the ground (see video below). “Fortunately, my head wasn’t hurt,” he said. “I was hurt in a few places, but I’m okay.” Moyal returned to demonstrate again on Saturday night. “We are battling for our future, and we won’t give in,” he said. “Even if there’s a price, we’re prepared to pay it.”

The physicians claim that police have violated their own regulations on the use of water cannons. These 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 may not be directed at the upper body and certainly not people’s heads.

These internal guidelines also prohibit the use of water cannons in a way that could cause individuals to be thrown against a wall or fall from heights. The machines may also not be used near the elderly, children, the disabled, or pregnant women.

“First and foremost, they are only permitted to be used if protesters use violence against the police. But this is not what is going on. The protests have been peaceful. Even the police chief said that not a single policeman or policewoman has landed in the hospital due to injury during the protests of the last six months,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, chair of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians.

Hagai Levine (Screen capture: YouTube)

Levine told The Times of Israel that, although police have used water cannons in the past, what is being seen now from an epidemiological perspective is a cluster of serious injuries caused by the machinery.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, chair of the public health forum of the Israel Medical Association, expressed his alarm over the recent injuries and characterized them as unprecedented.

“I’m not aware of someone in Israel — within the Green Line — who was previously in danger of losing his eye because of a water cannon,” he said.

Levine said he was hopeful that police will take the doctors’ concerns seriously and invited them to sit down to jointly come up with improved ways to enforce reasonable and proportional use of water cannons to avoid injury.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, Taub Center principal researcher and health policy program chair, and head of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s School of Public Health. (Dani Machlis/BGU)

“That is what happened when we sent the police a letter this past April about our concern about the use of Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) against protesters,” Levine said.

LRAD is a powerful sound device used for crowd control that can cause serious damage to hearing and other health problems. Such a device is used just a meter from the target and emits sound between 135-150 decibels at a frequency of 2,500-3,000 Hz.

According to Levine, the doctors were invited to a professional discussion, and their concerns were taken seriously.

“We presented our concerns and suggestions, and the police procedures changed. Not all our recommendations were accepted, but there was serious deliberation and change,” he said.

As of the time of the writing of this article, the physicians had not received a response to their letter about the water cannons from police. It is unlikely that the doctors will be invited to a meeting before the massive protests planned for later this week.

“Police must ensure that human rights and public health principles are taken into consideration and that [they] exercise universally recognized limits on the use of water cannons,” Davidovitch warned.

In the meantime, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir continues to put pressure on police chief Shabtai to take a tougher stance against the protesters — which include physicians.

“It’s no secret that I am also a leader of the White Coats, a movement for the protection of Israeli democracy and public health. The cancellation of [judicial scrutiny of] reasonableness means there would be no protection for health,” Levine said.

Israeli doctors carrying ‘Doctors Fighting for Democracy’ attend a rally against the government’s judicial overhaul bills, Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

“The rule of reason protects health in many ways, including fair allocation of resources, the reasonable appointment of people to professional positions in the system, and the protection of government policies regarding smoking and sugar consumption and air pollution. In the past, the Supreme Court used reasonableness to help the Israel Medical Association and others, so we are very afraid of what might happen,” he said.

Levine said that if the government’s bill is passed Monday, he and many of his colleagues will strike, putting the medical system in a state of emergency.

“The hospitals will be staffed to treat any injured, but I am afraid there is going to be blood in the streets,” he said.

Also Sunday, the chairman of the Israel Medical Association, Prof. Zion Hagay, urged Netanyahu to reach broad consensus on the legislation, saying “the unity of the people is more important than any law on the table… We don’t have the privilege to march with open eyes toward an internal rift.”

He also noted that the association has voted in the past to fight any legislation that could harm the health system, which itself is based on “a democratic regime and a strong and independent judicial system.”

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