Human resilience and ecological resistance in the tear gas capital of the world
In and around Bethlehem, Palestinians are building gardens and doing permaculture in an environment threatened by chemical attacks.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank—In a garden just off the main drag in Bethlehem, a bright-eyed Palestinian man named Muhammad Saleh talked to a visiting group about a crate full of empty tear gas canisters.
The canisters, manufactured in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, at Combined Systems, Inc., were a stark contrast to Saleh's surroundings: dressed in a bright blue hoodie, he was serving visitors coffee and sage tea, showing off flowers and plants, ancient stone terraces, and jars of saved heirloom seeds behind a restored mansion called Dar Jacir that's now a Palestinian-run art space. Emily Jacir, founding director of Dar Jacir, collected the canisters at her family's home, which is frequently doused with tear gas.
Saleh talked quickly, tangentially, explaining the need for permaculture—sustainable and self-sufficient agricultural practices—in Palestine. His parents were refugees from Tiberias, in the Galilee, removed from their land and agricultural practices after the 1948 war, referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba or catastrophe. He grew up a refugee in an urban environment, and it took him awhile to realize his need to connect to the natural world.
"There's so much power in simplicity, and in putting hand in hand with nature," he told EHN.
He had the revelation during a trip to Turkey, where he lived and managed an off-the-grid educational center for three years, starting as a volunteer. He wanted to bring similar thinking back to Palestine, where access to natural resources such as water and fertile soil are consistently threatened by Israeli occupation.
"What I'm doing is not only technical, it's not landscaping, it's a connection," he said. "It's the therapeutic place that we all need in such a disturbed country."
Saleh is the founder of Mostadam Ecodesign, and he helps Palestinians envision and build ecologically-based living spaces in multiple ways, including indoor plants and gardens, rooftop gardens, aquaponics, and vegetable gardening.
Saleh's vision of an ecologically sound and environmentally healthy Palestine is incongruous with many of the realities of life under occupation, including the omnipresence of tear gas.
Parts of the Lajee Center's rooftop garden project has been burned in the past by tear gas canisters flying onto the roof. It's impossible for Palestinians to track exactly what is in all of these canisters. (Photo credit: Eyewitness Palestine)
Dar Jacir in Bethlehem has had teargas waft through its yard many times during clashes between Israeli military and Palestinian protesters. Saleh gestures down hill, toward a nearby refugee camp called Aida, a densely packed stone and cement labyrinth.
The camp is hit by tear gas so frequently, some of its rooftop gardens have burned and the plants destroyed.
Prompted by Emily Jacir, Saleh (who is the landscape artist in residence at Dar Jacir) has been researching what a teargas resistant garden might look like, but the question has proven surprisingly hard to answer.
Of course, plants aren't the only victims: The Israeli Security Forces (ISF) say they are using tear gas against riots or for crowd control, but there are many news reports and humanitarian records of the ISF spraying tear gas or shooting canisters into peaceful crowds, and at individuals and children.
On average, tear gas is used inside a refugee camp in Palestine more than once every two days.
Given the volume and frequency of tear gas used by both the Israeli and U.S. government, there is stunningly little research into the long-term health and environmental effects of its use. Tear gas is forbidden as a weapon of war under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, but its use on civilians worldwide continues to grow, with the ISF and U.S. prisons among the leaders.
There are three kinds of tear gas: OC (pepper spray), CN, and CS, and all are marketed as "non-lethal" alternatives for law enforcement; academic literature has taken to calling them "less-lethal."
The use of both CN and CS seems to be growing. The known effects of tear gas exposure include short-term burning sensations in the eyes, throat, and lungs, nerve damage, dermatitis, gastrointestinal illness, lung injury, and induced respiratory illness including asthma.
There have also been reports of people dying after being hit by tear gas canisters, which are often projected into crowds at high speeds, and several reports of deaths from mere exposure to the gas.
The use of tear gas inflicts pain on people and scorches plants. But the environmental health impacts largely remain a mystery. Researchers, human rights and health advocates say the use of tear gas should be curtailed, but for the people on the ground, the focus is on adaptation and survival. They are building gardens, health centers, and schools with protection from tear gas in mind, based on the assumption that the routine use of chemical weapons is unlikely to be rolled back.
The tear gas capital of the world
Shatha Alazaa, director of the environment unit at Lajee Center in Palestine, says if their rooftop garden is teargassed, they will just build it again (Photo credit: Eyewitness Palestine)
When outsiders visit Aida Refugee Camp, residents often show off tear gas canisters similar to the ones Saleh showed at Dar Jacir. At the entrance to Aida, in the shadow of the famously graffitied separation wall, children sell earrings and bracelets made out of the canisters' metal.
The canisters bear markings showing their origins in Russia, Israel, and the United States.
Aida Camp was the subject of a recent study out of the UC Berkeley Law School that found it was likely the most tear-gassed location in the world. The study said most uses of tear gas in the camp were unprovoked and indiscriminate.
The report, largely based on interviews with residents, documented many cases of small children repeatedly exposed to CS gas, including: a 9-year-old who was rendered unconscious by the gas; three children ages 8 and younger who suffered respiratory infections after tear gas was shot into their home; a 3-year-old who was hospitalized with respiratory problems after exposure; and a 12-year-old with asthma, who told interviewers, "It's scary but it's normal. I'm scared of their guns more but the gas, it hurts. When I smell it, it burns and I feel dizzy."
In 2017, 100 percent of residents interviewed in Aida said they'd been exposed to tear gas within the last year, and 84 percent said they were exposed in their homes. The authors of the UC study wrote, "Almost every interviewee noted that they had 'no safe spaces' where they could get away from the tear gas or avoid being exposed."
There is still little science on the long-term effects of tear gas exposure, the consequences of exposure for children or the elderly, or the ecological impacts. The lack of research, in turn, has provided justification for using tear gas as a so-called "non-lethal" alternative to live ammunition on crowds.
"I'm very concerned that the use is dramatically increasing worldwide, while the research is not increasing at all," Sven Jordt, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine who has studied tear gas for many years, told EHN. "There's very little systematic research being supported at this time by the U.S. government."
Long-term studies of tear gas exposure are virtually nonexistent, and in many cases, it's not even clear to observers or victims what type of chemical is being used. While the pain-causing ingredient in OC is hot peppers, CN and CS are chemical alternatives, 2-chloroacetophenone and 2-chlorobenzalmalonitrile, respectively. The specific mixes, including the non-chemical ingredients, are often proprietary.
Jordt said one of the most comprehensive studies was a U.S. government study of young military recruits, who are exposed to tear gas in a controlled environment as part of their training. "Even in healthy, fit, young recruits, tear gas can cause injury just with one exposure and the effects can last for weeks," he said.
In a 2016 study summarizing the state of teargas epidemiology, Jordt and his coauthors called for a reassessment of the use of tear gas as a chemical control agent against civilians, given the lack of information about exposure for high risk populations such as children and people with asthma or other pre-existing conditions.
Many studies of the effects of the chemicals involved have been animal studies. As Jordt and his coauthors write, the large U.S. military study of 6,000 recruits exposed to CS gas found that exposure levels previously considered safe were unacceptably high. The U.S. military has since reduced the concentration of tear gas used in training, but "whether these lower concentrations are also safe for diverse civilian populations remains unclear," Jordt and colleagues wrote.
In Palestine, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) recently trained a small group of workers in two of the camps to collect samples following tear gas incidents, but the agency can't currently afford to send the samples in for testing.Since 2018, UNRWA's funding has been severely cut by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, threatening services for some five million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, 1.5 million of whom are in camps.
"We just live inside a big jail"
The staff at the Lajee Center have been teaching Palestinian refugee children to grow herbs and do compost and recycling. (Photo credit: Eyewitness Palestine)
Aida, which sits at the edge of Bethlehem, is surrounded by six Israeli guard towers. It's a tiny, dense area of less than 4,300 square feet, dotted with screenless windows, laundry lines, and rooftop water barrels where the tightly rationed water supply is stored.
It's easy to imagine how tear gas shot into the street would spread through the camp, force itself into open windows and gardens via Aida's narrow streets, where children and adults come and go on foot.
"This is what is called the ongoing catastrophe," Shatha Alazza, director of the environment unit at the Lajee Center, a youth-focused non-profit serving residents of Aida, told EHN. She took visitors up to Lajee's rooftop garden, which has been burned by tear gas canisters in the past.
Mint, thyme, and sage grew in beds made of tires and palettes, and the barrels holding drinking water were painted with bright murals.
Walking through the camp down below, Alazza pointed to a soccer field with a mesh covering above it, a weak attempt to keep tear gas canisters from landing directly on the field and scorching the green.
In the face of these toxic conditions, Lajee staff teach residents about permaculture and ecology: They're teaching composting, recycling, and rooftop gardening to as many local children and families as they can, and the revamped rooftop garden with a greenhouse opened in March.
Lajee also helps residents document their lives; a 2016 video, We Have A Dream to Live Safe, shows ISF confrontations with Palestinian youth and tear gassing in Aida up close.
Alazza, herself only 26, said the constant traumas of occupation can lead to built up resentment and anger, which sometimes youth might take out on their environment, so they are trying to help them connect with and value the natural environment even in the face of extremely difficult living conditions.
She herself sometimes seems hopeless: "If I want to compare myself with others who live abroad, I see I am nothing. I don't have right to movement, I don't have educational rights, even health," she said. Looking around the camp, where she lives with her husband, she said, "We just live inside a big jail."
The very existence of multiple generations of refugees in these barren cement camps is a reflection of resilience: Palestinians remain in the UNRWA-administered enclaves in part to protect their right of return to their original homes, a right the UN has recognized since 1948 but that the Israeli and U.S. governments deny.
Asked what they will do if the revamped rooftop garden is hit with tear gas again, Alazza said, "we will just build it again. We will build it again every time."
A gas-proof school and health center
The rooftop garden at the Lajee Center looks out over Aida refugee camp, near Bethlehem in Palestine's West Bank. (Photo credit: Eyewitness Palestine)
Tear gas is not technically a gas, but a solid chemical powder, mixed with liquid and dispersed as a spray. Even after the immediate spray, chemical residues stay behind.
"There's no real standard that says, this is exactly how you clean tear gas," Tina Bao, chief marketing officer for a U.S.-based company called Aftermath, which provides remediation services for homes that have been exposed to tear gas, told EHN. At Aftermath, they recommend disposing of anything porous that can't be laundered, such as drapes and upholstered furniture, and they scrub down all exposed surfaces with a special mixture of chemicals.
Aftermath workers wear full hazmat suits and special disposable gloves to perform the work.
In Palestinian refugee camps, there is no such remediation service; UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian services in camps, just developed a tear gas remediation protocol for the first time this April. Until then, "Kids were picking it up, selling the scrap metal, sanitation workers were picking it up with their bare hands," Melanie Hyde, UNRWA's protection and neutrality officer, told EHN.
UNRWA's priority has been to identify the volume and acute effects of tear gas exposure through reporting. UNRWA workers, who are present in all Palestinian refugee camps, attempt to track every ISF incursion, what weapons are used, and whether tear gas is used. Environmental concerns, such as the effects on water, plants, or soil, remain unstudied by UNRWA.
That said, UNRWA is now taking tear gas into account in its architectural plans; a new school inside of Aida will be designed to minimise the impact of tear gas canisters breaking through windows or entering directly into classrooms and play areas, and a health center in Dheisheh was designed with blast-proof glass on the outside to keep tear gas canisters from flying inside.
As for protecting gardens, UNRWA officials said they don't know what that would require. They remain focused on medical care and remediation. While tear gas use in Aida has decreased over the last two years, it's on the rise in other camps: In 2018, across 19 refugee camps in occupied Palestine, UNRWA recorded 206 incidents in which the ISF deployed tear gas inside the crowded camps. UN OCHA recorded nearly 3,800 Palestinians who received medical treatment related to tear gas exposure in the West Bank in the same period, and more than 1,000 of these were children.
"We can certainly take efforts to decontaminate the area, but that doesn't really address the fact that they are exposed to tear gas quite regularly," Hyde said. "We say, "this is really dangerous. They say okay, well can you stop it?"
A global growth industry
Muhammah Saleh teaches Palestinians about seed-saving. The activist behind collecting and also teaching about these seeds is Vivien Sansour, founder of the heirloom seed library of Palestine.ƒ (Photo credit: Will Duggan)
The use of tear gas globally continues to grow: It's been used extensively against protesters in Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, South Korea, Hong Kong, the U.S., and recently against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"It's easy to give into the myth of inevitability that these manufacturers would hope to perpetrate, that this technology is out there, it's out of the box," Tory Smith, national organizer for the War Resisters League, which ran a campaign against the global use of tear gas for several years, told EHN.
WRL is part of a growing international movement against tear gas, focused on the manufacturers who promote its use without evidence that it is safe. Following the use of tear gas at the U.S. border, a group called Decolonize This Place is organizing ongoing protests against the Whitney Museum in New York over the presence of a tear gas mogul on the Whitney's board.
Muhammad Saleh said his search for tear gas resistant plants has come up empty. The lack of scientific research means he and others in Palestine are winging it: at Aida, they're experimenting with netting and greenhouses, which may keep some of the chemicals out of gardens and children's play areas. Saleh's moved on to building an urban farm at Dar Jacir in Bethlehem.
Pointing to the bin of tear gas canisters at Dar Jacir, he noticed what many people in Palestine notice about tear gas: A U.S. company profits every time it is used against them, whether the pretence of "riot control" is present or not.
Combined Systems, Inc, the company in Pennsylvania that manufactured the canisters Saleh gathered in Bethlehem, didn't respond to requests for comment.
"If you see oppression anywhere in the world, it's not about nationalism or about religion, it's about money," he said, and then interrupted himself with a giant smile, distracted by a bird flying by over Bethlehem's dense rooftops. "Look at this beautiful bird!"
Editor's note: The story was updated to reflect that Emily Jacir collected the tear gas canisters showed to the author and that she was who prompted the search for a teargas-resistant garden.