The IDF said Sunday it is changing riot control methods, replacing its sometimes lethal rubber-coated steel pellets with compressed sand bullets.
Rubber bullets have killed dozens of Palestinians in the past two decades. The new sand bullets were originally developed for close-quarter hostage rescue situations.
An Israeli human rights groups praised the decision, but said it was surprising that the army had taken so long to find non-lethal means of dispersing Palestinian demonstrators.
The new round, in which the head of the bullet is made from compressed sand and can be fired from a regular rifle, has already been used in the West Bank against Palestinians protesting against the separation barrier Israel is building, the army said.
The sand bullet, said to be extremely painful but less dangerous because it does not penetrate the skin, was developed and first used by Israel's Prisons Authority, the army said. The rubber bullets will be phased out.
Human rights groups praised the move.
"Every time less lethal weapons are used it is a good thing," said Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the
human rights group B'tselem.
For years, the army maintained that the rubber bullets were not lethal. However, the bullets were deadly when fired from too close a range or when they hit soft body areas, such as eyes.
At least 60 Palestinians were killed by rubber bullets between 1987 and 1993, in the first Palestinian uprising, according to B'tselem.
Since the eruption of the latest round of fighting in 2000, 15 Palestinians have been killed, Michaeli said, noting that the army frequently used live fire against stone-throwing youths.
"We have been asking the army for many years to develop less lethal weapons for demonstrations and to make it accessible to all soldiers," Michaeli said.
The army also routinely uses tear gas and stun grenades against protesters and recently unveiled a machine called "The Scream," a device that emits penetrating bursts of sound that leaves targets reeling with dizziness and nausea.
The military has denied that the new weapons were acquired in the face of possible confrontations with thousands of Jewish protesters in next month's Gaza Strip withdrawal.
The new ordinance was developed by a prison service team looking for a non-lethal weapon to be used in prison hostage situations, said Prisons Authority spokesman Ofer Lefler.
"We wanted something that would allow us to get the prisoner out alive," he said.
Lefler said the bullet was developed by the team working in consultations with armies around the world. He declined to give further details on the development process or the contents of the sand bullet.
Michaeli said her group had no information on the sand bullet or reports of fatalities from it.
"We hope that the new bullet will not be deadly," she said.