Repressing the City: Israel’s Less-Than-Lethal Weapons and the Criminalization of Citizens and Dissent

By Erella Grassiani

This essay is part of Emergent Conversation 13, ILLICITIES: City-Making and Organized Crime

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Gendarmerie Mobile stand guard amid clouds of tear gas. More than 5000 protesters demonstrated for the 4th time for a protest against the so-called ‘Global Security Law’ bill promoted by French President Macron and his majority. The ‘Global Security Law’ bill will also forbid anyone to photograph or film police members if not flouted : transgressors could be condemned up to one year in jail and a 45.000 fine. The bill also plans to generalize facial recognition in pubic spaces as in China.The French Rights Defender, the French National Commission on Human Rights (administrative bodies) and the UN Human Rights body condemn the planned law saying that it will be a violation of internationals treaties signed and ratified by France, the Universal Human Rights Declaration, general principles of law, etc. They fear a chilling effect on people wanting to use their right to protest, right to personal privacy… and on journalists, photographers, videographers. The protest ended by skirmishes between protesters and riot police (CRS), Gendarmerie Mobile (military) and BAC (Anti Crime Unit)Toulouse. France. November 28th 2020. Photo by Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

It has unfortunately become a familiar sight: city streets drenched in clouds of smoke through which we can discern heavily armed police forces trying to stave off protestors. From checkpoints in Palestine and other war-torn places, to Istanbul, Ferguson, and Paris, “anti-riot” and “non-lethal” weaponry is used against civilians by government forces.  Activists across the world have had the same types of tear gas canisters thrown at them, and shared advice transnationally on how to deal with the sting of different substances. [1]  Scholars have researched the global sale of these weapons (Halper 2015; Grassiani 2017; Grassiani and Müller 2019) and, in the Israel/Palestine context, analysis shows Gaza has been used as a “lab” of sorts for this industry, testing its weaponry there before selling products globally (Graham and Baker 2016; Khalili 2010). Weapons go from one place to the other, while both war-making and profits are shared among state leaders who have a tendency not to listen to the qualms of their citizens, but instead quash their criticism and protests. The urban environment appears as the key space of confrontation, and urban actors—particularly disgruntled citizens—the key locus of control.

The repressive logic of “anti-riot” or so-called “non-lethal” weaponry is evident in its global marketing, which sells weapons by criminalizing both urban populations and their democratic tools to voice their concerns.[2] The Israeli case exemplifies this dynamic, and in this post, I trace “non-lethal” weapons from their development through their marketing and sale by the Israeli security industry—sales that are geared at urban law enforcement agencies across the world. The ideas that accompany these weapons and their very materiality expose how one of the key democratic expressions of urban populations—protesting—is being criminalized, and with it the resisting population itself.

Developing and Selling Weapons Not to Kill

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ST LOUIS, MO – OCTOBER 12: A demonstrator protesting the killings of 18-year-olds Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri Police officer and Vonderrit Myers Jr. by an off duty St. Louis police officer gets help after being maced by police on October 12, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. The St. Louis area has been struggling to heal since riots erupted in suburban Ferguson following Brown’s death. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Many technologies used as non-lethal weapons were developed by Israel in the context of counterinsurgency in Occupied Palestine. In recent decades, Israeli soldiers were sent into dense refugee camps, de facto cities, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, enabling Israel to became expert in technologies of “urban combat.” Non- or less-than-lethal weaponry is one example of weapons that have been developed and used against Palestinians for many years. Israel has proven to be extremely “creative” in inventing substances that can disperse crowds such as protestors (or “rioters” in the industry’s language), from versions of tear gas, which has been used globally since colonial times (Feigenbaum 2017), to newer technologies.

Israeli companies proudly market such technologies as necessities for any state or police force. TAR ideal, for example, is an Israeli company that introduces itself as a “solutions provider” and a “one stop shop” for anything from Homeland Security to Defense. It promotes “non-lethal” weaponry in its glossy catalogue entitled “Law Enforcement.” On its cover, we see a scenes similar to the one I described above:  policemen in full gear standing opposite of citizens, in what looks like a (European?) city square. The policeman at the front sprays a substance on the crowd that stands below him. Close to the policeman, we see people trying to flee and guard themselves against whatever is being sprayed on them. It is unclear where this photo was taken or what the precise context is; the policeman stands for all police forces, it seems, and the crowd for any group of people that needs to be repressed. Inside the catalogue we find a host of different liquids, gasses, launchers (to shoot canisters of gas), vehicles, protective body gear, riot helmets, riot shields, batons and sound systems that can aid governments to disperse “riots.”

Looking more closely at how these products and technologies are described we can discern the broader narrative they are part of. For example, a product called a “sponge grenade,” which looks like an oversized bullet, is described as a “non-lethal 40 mm crowd dispersal grenade intended for direct fire. Low hazard, non-shrapnel-producing device with a non-lethal effect upon impact” (TAR ideal catalogue).  However, we know from reports of human rights organizations in Israel/Palestine and victims’ testimonies that such a grenade can be lethal or severely wounding when shot directly and at a (too) close range.[3]

Another projectile, which is simply called “CS/OC powder,” promises to cause a “burning sensation” when used for crowd control.  “Skunk,” a foul smelling substance sprayed on crowds, receives a special place in the catalogue and is described as “non-lethal, providing a non-violent method to disperse demonstrators” (TAR ideal catalogue). The photos accompanying this explanation are of people on city streets being sprayed by large tank-like vehicles, with police forces behind plastic shields in the background. Then there is the Scream, which creates a sound that is said to provoke nausea and dizziness (Volcler 2013). It has been used by the Israeli military against Palestinian protestors since the early 2000s. When introduced it was called the “Shofar,” which alludes to the ceremonial horn used by religious Jews.

Framing the Criminal

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Palestinians run for cover from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Jabalia on May 14, 2018, as Palestinians protest over the inauguration of the US embassy following its controversial move to Jerusalem. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images.

Israel has developed a wide range of such anti-riot or non-lethal weapons and is keen to sell them globally. When considering the narratives and ideas that accompany the sale of these products, we see how they are portayed as different from lethal weaponry, but also, worryingly, how they cast a new group of citizens as potential enemies of the state, making them bodies to be repressed and removed.

As already alluded to above, any protest or gathering of people who critique the state are framed as a threat to be supressed. Protests are called riots, which right away puts them in a threatening, illicit category. Riots are events the state needs to push back. This framing is not insignificant. Israel has developed a large range of weapons and technologies against Palestinians, in what it calls “the conflict” and the “fight against terrorism.” These include regular guns, tanks, border control devices, and cyber technologies.  In theory, these weapons were developed for military use in fighting terrorist threats and to engage in combat situations. The Israeli military has long carried out mostly constabulary activities in the Occupied Territories (Grassiani 2013), yet the narrative that accompanies these activities, in addition to the weaponry, is that of counterinsurgency and anti-terrorist combat. For many years this has also been the language that has been used to sell Israeli weaponry and security systems—as developed by Israel, an expert in anti-terrorism and urban warfare, for any other nation facing such threats. During the many security fairs that the private and public security industry organizes in Israel, foreign customers are encouraged to buy these goods as “we are all in the same boat,” meaning, we all face the same (i.e., Muslim) terrorist threat. Such language also goes a long way when diplomatic ties are presented to the public. Israel’s good relationship with national leaders, such as Bolsonaro, Duterte and Modi has already resulted in many weapon deals and exchanges of training and expertise.

However, over the past few years something has changed. Just as lethal weapons are accepted generally when used against seemingly obvious (terrorist) threats, their marketing as such is fairly easy and straightforward. Yet Israeli companies have also recognized a new commercial opportunity as more and more “democratic” states are using repressive power against their own citizens—inhabitants of cities in Europe, the U.S., and anywhere else people take to the streets to critique their (local) governments—citizens that governments want quelled, but not (necessarily) killed. What sells non- or less-than-lethal weapons that can be used in civilian settings? First of all, the party to be “combatted” or defeated must be reframed.

This shift can be seen in the way non-lethal weaponry is marketed. Companies do this by framing democratic gatherings and protests of civilians as riots. In doing so, they also reframe the “enemy” who needs to be repressed; protestors themselves become a faceless, violent crowd. When attending the Future Forces for HLS conference and exhibition in 2015, I observed how the security industry does this. During the conference, both private actors and senior police officers explain their vision for “future forces,” and one thing becomes clear:  they recognize that those forces need to apply methods that are “cleaner,” or at least non-lethal. During one of the presentations where non-lethal methods are discussed, I was drawn to a figure on the screen. It was a cartoonish drawing of a human who depicted as the “enemy” against whom (non-lethal) weapons or systems can be used. The figure was wearing a purple pants and a green hoody, while its face was covered with a bandana. It was hurling a bottle, a Molotov cocktail, perhaps. This figure did not try to portray the sort of enemy I was used to seeing in these kinds of events, namely a kufiyah-wearing “Arab terrorist.” There is a new kind of enemy, it seems, who does not need to be killed, but needs to be “supressed,” “denied access,” “removed from the area,” or even “disabled,” as a next slide of the PowerPoint presentation told us.

Related to the framing of protests as riots and the protesting citizen as an enemy in the marketing of such weaponry is the fact that this narrative is sanitized. As we have seen, companies de-contextualize the photos they use to accompany anti-riot gear. The crowd is faceless. The weapons are non-lethal and “clean.” The reality, however, is very different:  bodies are bruised, people are made to vomit, people are maimed, and some are even killed with these weapons. This shows something significant that all of these weapons and technologies have in common: they attack the senses, the psyche, and the body. They may not be “meant” to kill, but they inflict pain, blind people, smell very badly and work on the neurological systems of the body to push people into obedience. I believe the ways the body and the senses are repressed and hurt here correlates with the sanitized language that is used by companies selling these weapons.

As a result, civilians who practice their democratic right to protest in the city are criminalized—not just by the government they are criticizing, but by the security companies who sell these methods of supression. The citizen is framed as “uncontrollable” and violent, unwanted, and as polluting the orderly streets. Their bodies and voices, everything that makes them human, must be stopped and chased off the city streets. By portraying legal protests as “riots” and constructing non-violent demonstrators as enemies, the marketing of non-lethal and riot-suppressing products reclassifies democratic practices into the category of illegality. These weapons and their marketing criminalize the democratic tools citizens have to protest against injustice. Subsequently, the suppression of protests by force, seen as illicit by many, is normalized as legal. Recently, the Guardian and Washington Post revealed that Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group has sold its Pegasus spyware to governments to spy on both opponents, human rights activists, and journalists. The sale of “non-lethal” weaponry and these surveillance tools highlight the fact that the occupation of Palestine continues to produce a wide range of threats to democratic citizenship and practice globally.

Erella Grassiani is an Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. Her work traces the flows of the (Israeli) security worldwide and looks at the way cultural ideas, technologies and consultants move around globally. She further studies Jewish militias and their relation to the state.  In the past she has done extensive research on the Israeli military. She is the author of Soldiering under Occupation processes of Numbing among Israeli soldiers in the Al-Aqsa Intifada (2013 Berghahn Books).


[1] See, for example, accessed 4 April 2021.

[2] See, for example, the use of Skunk in the US, accessed 4 April 2021.

[3] See, for example, accessed 4 April 2021.  and the research by Who Profits accessed 4 April 2021.

Works Cited

Feigenbaum, Anna. 2017. Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today. London:  Verso Books.

Graham, Stephen, and Alexander Baker. 2016. “Laboratories of Pacification and Permanent War: Israeli–US Collaboration in the Global Making of Policing.” In Jana Hönke and Markus-Michael Müller (eds.), The Global Making of Policing: Postcolonial Perspectives. Pp. 40-58. London: Routledge.

Grassiani, Erella. 2013. Soldiering under Occupation: Processes of Numbing among Israeli Soldiers in the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Oxford:  Berghahn Books.

—. 2017. “Commercialised Occupation Skills: Israeli Security Experience as an International Brand.” In Leese M. and Wittendorp S. (eds.), Security/Mobility: Politics of Movement. Pp. 57-73. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Grassiani, Erella, and Frank Müller. 2019. “Brazil-Israel Relations and the Marketing of Urban Security Expertise.” Latin American Perspectives 46(3): 114–30.

Halper, Jeff. 2015. War against the People. London: Pluto Press.

Khalili, Laleh. 2010. “The Location of Palestine in Global Counterinsurgencies.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42(3): 413-433.

Volcler, Juliette. 2013. Extremely Loud: Sound as a Weapon. New York: The New Press.


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