After the publication of Lethal in Disguise 1 in 2016, aid workers in the Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps outside of Bethlehem, in Palestine, reached out to the authors. The camps are decades old, small, densely populated–and adjacent to the Separation Wall in some places. Residents reported exposure to tear gas two to three times a week for more than a year. In some months, the exposure was almost daily. Staff in the camps worried the tear gas was used in breach of international norms and to the significant health detriment of the community.
Responding to the request for support, researchers at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco put together a team to study the issue. The aim of the study was to: (1) identify the frequency of exposure to tear gas among refugees who live in Aida and Dheisheh camps; and (2) categorise potential medical and psychological symptoms (both acute and chronic) associated with this exposure.
In the summer of 2017, researchers travelled to Bethlehem to conduct the research. The findings, published in the report No Safe Space by the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law, revealed that the use of chemical irritants in these camps likely far surpassed anything seen anywhere else on the globe. And because the camps are tightly packed with poor ventilation, tear gas was entering homes and lingering in the air as well as on the ground. Children were playing with used canisters, and nearly everyone, from babies to the elderly, was experiencing symptoms from the chronically high exposure. There truly was “no safe space” and no way out.
Researchers conducted 10 focus groups with over 75 participants and interviewed 236 individuals in the camp, ages ten and older, as part of a household population survey. Fully 100% of residents surveyed reported being exposed to tear gas in the past year. Respondents also reported being exposed in the past several years to stun grenades (87%), skunk water (a foul-smelling liquid; 85%), and pepper spray (54%). Respondents also reported witnessing the use of rubber bullets (52%), and several (6%) also reported witnessing the use of live ammunition (6%).
Over half (55%) of respondents described between three and 10 tear gas exposures in the month before the survey was carried out, both indoors and outdoors. Indoor locations included homes, schools, and places of work. Over the same period, 84.3% were exposed to tear gas in the home, 9.4% at work, 10.7% in school, and 8.5% elsewhere (in a car for instance). Fifty-three people (22.5%) said that they had been hit directly with a tear gas canister in the past. Community focus groups consistently and independently reported experiences of fear, worry, physiological reactivity, hyper-arousal, poor and disrupted sleep, lack of safety, and daily disruptions in basic activities of daily living.
The use of military-grade ammunition for crowd control is unusual, and typical tear gas canisters do not pose the same magnitude of hazard. However, with little to no regulation of chemical irritants, these weapons were manufactured, purchased, and used against civilians, with no limitations. Worryingly, direct impacts to the head from “civilian grade” tear gas canisters have been documented to cause injuries ranging from traumatic brain injury, skull fracture, enucleation, and death.