The roll call of the 146 dead published by the Palestine Human Rights Information Center in Jerusalem, March 20, 1988, is dominated by gunshot victims: shot in the head, shot in the chest, shot in the neck. But among the 49 “deaths from other causes,” 31 were killed by a “non-lethal” riot control weapon euphemistically called tear gas. Physicians for Human Rights, which studied the massive use of tear gas against demonstrators by the South Korean government in 1987, says that tear gases should more properly be called “poisonous gases” and should be “banned from further use against human populations everywhere.”

Many of the the Gaza and West Bank tear gas victims were very young or very old. On January 2, an 82-year old woman from Jabalya camp in the Gaza Strip, Maryam Abu ‘Awdallah Abu Zahir, was asphyxiated by tear gas and died in her home. A week earlier, a baby from the same camp, Amal ‘Abd al-Wahid Qa‘isa, just two days old, turned blue and died in her crib after tear gas was thrown inside her parents’ home.

Evidence is mounting in Gaza and the West Bank that tear gas exposure to pregnant women may contribute to miscarriage or fetal death. On just one night in late January, at Shifa Hospital in Gaza, five women in their last weeks of pregnancy delivered babies who had died in utero. A sixth woman’s baby was born alive but three months premature. All the mothers had been exposed to tear gas within the previous weeks.

The mechanism that links tear gas exposure to fetal deaths is not proven — Western studies on the effects of “riot control agents” do not examine effects on fetuses — but the UN Relief and Works Agency has begun an epidemiological study of women who have miscarried after repeated exposure. Doctors suggest tear gas could cause death by affecting the oxygen supply and/or blood circulation, or through the breakdown of the chemicals in the gas to a toxic substance, probably cyanide. Physicians estimate than in Gaza alone there have been 80 fetal deaths in pregnant women exposed to tear gas.

For Palestinian women, the link seems clear enough. They have heard of too many cases like that of 29-year old Najah Nijar. Seven months pregnant, Nijar had suffered repeated exposure to noxious tear gas fumes while her home in Gaza’s Burayj camp was under curfew. “The tear gas — thrown by soldiers, shot with guns and even dropped by helicopters — was so thick that her husband kept a bucket of water next to the door to throw on any gas canisters that landed in the house,” according to MERIP contributing editor Anita Vitullo. “On the first day of the gassing, Nijar felt her stomach go hard. When the curfew was lifted three days later, she was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where her baby was born dead.”

Manufacturers of tear gas have long been aware that their product can be harmful or lethal, if not used “properly.” Canisters from a US tear gas manufacturer, Federal Laboratories in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, are marked with a stark warning: “May start fires. Must not be fired directly at persons as death or injury may result. For outdoor use only.” (In the early 1970s, Federal Laboratories had to pay $240,000 in damages to a prisoner in South Carolina who was blinded in both eyes by its tear gas.) CS gas, which is being used extensively by Israeli forces, is more potent and faster-acting than the older CN gas, used by many police forces around the world. It comes in the form of a fine powder which within 20 to 60 seconds causes “headache, uncontrollable coughing and sneezing, and burning of the eyes, nose, tongue and throat…tightness of the chest and a feeling of suffocation” and sometimes “nausea, vomiting and fainting,” according to Physicians for Human Rights. The powder can stick to the skin or clothing, causing welts and burning. There is no known antidote.

Even the relatively milder CN gas, which comes in liquid form, has caused death and injury. A 1966 report from the Office of Public Safety of the Department of State describes the case of a 29-year old man who was barricaded in a small room. A single CN gas canister was set off in the room. The man was exposed for 30 minutes before being taken into custody. He died 12 hours later of acute pulmonary edema (accumulation of fluid in the lungs). A nationwide survey by the Office of Public Safety discovered three other similar cases.

Repeated indiscriminate use of the more potent CS gas in narrow passageways through refugee camps, not to mention inside homes and buildings, is likely to have similarly severe effects. As retired US Army Colonel Rex Applegate states in his book on riot control, “lethal or dangerous concentrations [of CS] can possibly be built up in confined areas and under situations where immobilized or incapacitated persons are unable to leave the area of concentration.” An open letter from health professionals in the West Bank and Gaza to the British medical journal, The Lancet (January 23, 1988), described three Israeli military attacks on Shifa Hospital in Gaza. On two of these occasions, on December 15 and 18, 1987, “a hundred tear gas canisters were thrown around and inside the hospital.”

The New York Times reported on January 23, 1988, that “several witnesses independently described an incident in Ramallah on Tuesday when soldiers threw a tear gas canister into a grocery store and locked the merchant inside. Residents broke his windows to rescue him, and he was taken to hospital in convulsions.” And on January 15, 1988, Israeli police attacked 5,000 Palestinians who had just attended Friday prayers at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and were marching around the mosque chanting nationalist slogans. In the next three hours, police repeatedly set off tear gas canisters, even inside the mosque itself. Israeli officials denied that the tear gas was set off in the mosque, but the Times reported that “television footage of the clashes clearly shows the police throwing tear gas canisters in the door of the mosque and one being thrown back out.”

Where is the tear gas coming from? Much of it from the United States. On December 22, the Reagan administration criticized Israel’s “harsh security measures and excessive use of live ammunition.” A more appropriate response, the US suggested, would be tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon. The State Department put its words into action, reportedly expediting the shipment of supplies of tear gas to the Israeli military.

Some of the tear gas Israel is using was manufactured by Federal Laboratories in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, one of a handful of commercial tear gas manufacturers in the US. Ten years ago, Harry Wells of Federal Laboratories told the Wall Street Journal how he promotes his products: “At a glance, I can smell where trouble’s brewing in the world,” Wells said. Whenever he learns of a “significant new trouble spot, he dispatches a salesman to the area to sniff out new business.”

Sources: Reports from the Palestine Human Rights Information Center, Jerusalem; Physicians for Human Rights, “The Use of Tear Gas in the Republic of Korea: A Report by Health Professionals,” July 27, 1987; Anita Vitullo in The Guardian (New York), January 13, 1988 and February 3, 1988; Office of Public Safety study cited in Col. Rex Applegate, Riot Control: Materiel and Techniques (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1981), pp. 152 and 174; Jewish Telegraphic Agency, January 19, 1988; Newsweek, February 1, 1988; Wall Street Journal, August 2, 1978.

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger "More Deadly Than Tears," Middle East Report 152 (May/June 1988).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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