‘The Skunk’: Another Israeli weapon for collective punishment

Israeli forces are using a ‘crowd control’ weapon with which they collectively punish Palestinian civilians for daring to protest.

Palestinian protesters react as Israeli police fire skunk water during protests against the forced eviction of Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem on May 5, 2021 [Reuters/Ammar Awad]

In Nazareth, Haifa, Ramallah, Jerusalem and beyond Palestinians have been demonstrating against the ongoing ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Israeli regime. Motivated and inspired by the steadfast resistance of Palestinian families facing forced evictions from their homes in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem, they have bravely taken to the streets – bravely because they do so, knowing that what awaits them is brutal crackdown by the Israeli army and police.

Indeed, at Al-Aqsa compound, where much of the violence against protesters has taken place, Palestinians were tear gassed and fired at as they prayed. Further south, Israel has launched air raids on Gaza, hitting civilian buildings and killing over 40 people, including at least 14 children.

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In addition to those killed, hundreds have been injured by live and rubber bullets, tear gas and beatings, but also by a weapon that is lesser known to the global media covering the protests. Many have erroneously referred to it as a water cannon or a sewage truck.

In Arabic, we call it the “kharara”- literally “the shitter” – for its putrid smell. In English, it is called skunk water, after the notoriously awful smell released by skunks. Skunk water was developed as a “crowd control weapon” by an Israeli company called Odortec.

Skunk water is a liquid compound with an overpowering odour that has been described by those who have experienced it as the smell of sewage mixed with rotting corpses. In reality, it is a concoction of chemicals that causes intense nausea, obstructing normal breathing, causing violent gagging and vomiting. The company’s safety sheet also indicates that it can cause skin irritation, eye and abdominal pain. Palestinians have also reported that it causes hair loss.

Security forces that use skunk water claim that it is non-lethal and non-toxic. Yet high doses can have a lethal effect, and when it is fired from a water cannon, it is sprayed at extremely high pressure, which can cause serious injury.

Even a small spray of the skunk water leaves a stench on the skin for days. On clothes and in buildings the stench can last even longer.

Of course, the Israeli forces do not only use it to suppress protests; they also deploy it for collective punishment. Skunk trucks pass through Palestinian neighbourhoods spraying buildings in retaliation for local residents protesting Israeli occupation and apartheid.

As a result, businesses have to close for days and families have to leave their homes for long periods of time until the stench is gone. This is what makes it a brutal collective punishment tool.

Apart from selling skunk water to the Israeli government to use on Palestinians, Odortec also exports it. In the United States, it is supplied by the company Mistral Security, which recommends its usage at “border crossings, correctional facilities, demonstrations and sit-ins”. Several police departments have already bought it, including the one in Ferguson, Missouri, following the 2015 protests against police brutality and institutional racism.

The fact that this weapon developed by an Israeli company is gaining popularity abroad is unsurprising. Israel is the largest per capita exporter of arms in the world and it uses Palestinians as its guinea pigs to demonstrate their “efficacy” and “deadliness”. Odortec and other Israeli arms manufacturers do not even have to invest in marketing their weapons; news channels running footage of brutal attacks by the Israeli army do the job for them.

Israeli companies that produce weapons for mass killing have Gaza to test them on. The Israelis have even called the densely-populated strip, where civilians are not protected by an “Iron Dome” or sophisticated military shelters, a “cash cow”. The horrific outcome of decades of Israeli arms companies “testing” practices have been thousands of killed and maimed Palestinians.

Israel exports arms tested on Palestinian civilians to around 130 countries, including to governments with horrific human rights records. For people in these countries, who find themselves on the receiving end of aggression by local forces using Israeli weapons, Palestinians have plenty of advice.

Specifically for dealing with “kharara”, we recommend the following: if it gets on your skin, rub tomatoes and olive oil to help get the smell off; if it gets on your clothes, it is better to throw them away. Overall, it is best to avoid getting sprayed at all costs.

In dealing with the psychological effects of violent repression and collective punishment, Palestinians also have a recommendation: dark humour. The “kharara” already features prominently in Palestinian jokes. One goes: what would you rather face – bullets or the “kharara”?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.