The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Guns are everywhere’ in Israel, occupied territories as violence spikes

Armed men fire their guns as the body of 15-year-old Imad Khaled Hashash, who was shot while on the roof of his home by Israeli forces, is brought home in Balata refugee camp near Nablus, West Bank. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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JERUSALEM — In earlier rounds of lethal violence here, lone Palestinian assailants often relied on kitchen cleavers, or cars as battering rams.

Now they are using guns.

Two recent attacks against Jewish Israelis were carried out with handguns. First, a 21-year-old man killed seven people outside a synagogue; the next day, a 13-year-old boy wounded two people just beyond the walls of the Old City. Neither assailant appeared to be affiliated with a Palestinian armed group.

At least 7 killed in East Jerusalem synagogue shooting

The violence underscores what security experts have been observing in recent years — a flood of illegal arms into Palestinian communities, including East Jerusalem, where local arms traffickers say business has never been better. The same is happening in Palestinian Israeli towns, where a political and security vacuum has allowed criminal gangs to flourish, and spurred ordinary people to buy guns for their own protection.

Some of the black-market weapons are smuggled from neighboring countries; others are pieced together in makeshift factories or stolen from Israeli military armories.

In response to the recent attacks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hard-right government has pledged to issue thousands of new gun permits to Israeli civilians.

Netanyahu says that more guns in the hands of more trained Israelis will save lives, empowering citizens to act as a first line of defense.

Critics fear the strategy will stoke a “Wild West” dynamic, making Palestinians and Jewish Israelis in the West Bank, for example, less likely to just throw stones and more likely to open fire.

“The number of illegal weapons in East Jerusalem is unbelievable,” said Sharon Gat, a colonel in an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) special forces unit and founder of the Caliber 3, a sprawling counterterrorism and security academy in Gush Etzion, an Israeli settlement south of Bethlehem.

“This is very dangerous for both Jews and Arabs,” Gat said.

‘A very good business’

In a stone garage warmed by a fire of burning shipping pallets, in a hillside neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Washington Post reporters met the gun dealer Abu Sabir, dressed in black jeans, playing the gracious host, serving coffee and cookies.

He spoke on the condition that his full name not be used to discuss the illicit trade.

“Guns are everywhere. You want a gun? You can buy a gun in an hour. You can buy a handgun. They’re not cheap. You can even buy a machine gun, an assault rifle. They’re very expensive. But demand is very high. So it is a very good business,” said Abu Sabir, who has been arrested and jailed several times for gun possession and selling.

Abu Sabir suggested that being a gun merchant was a respectable profession in his community and not forbidden by Islam — as opposed to drug dealing, which he called “shameful.”

“Americans love guns, no?” he asked playfully. “Now Palestinians love guns.”

He was happy to quote prices, thumbing through his phone to show weapons and ammunition, as well as videos of satisfied customers firing weapons in the desert.

The prices he named were exorbitant, suggesting high demand and limited supply, and confirmed by an Israeli security expert.

A single 9mm bullet for a handgun might cost as much as $10. A handgun would cost $13,000 to $23,000 on the black market, depending on age, type and condition. The same weapon, legally obtained in Israel, costs around $1,350.

Handmade guns manufactured in underground workshops, sometimes with smuggled parts — often called a “Carlo” — go for less, though they are notoriously unreliable.

Recently, Abu Sabir noted, illegal gunmakers have been purchasing pellet guns and air rifles and converting them with triggering mechanisms and firing pins to fire live rounds. These former “toys” are deadly, capable of discharging several bullets before they jam.

“You can buy a gun on a layaway plan,” Abu Sabir said. “Sometimes a group of five friends will get together to buy one gun — and share it.”

He said most of his customers buy a gun for self-protection — to defend their businesses and homes from rivals and gangs.

In Israel’s Arab communities, there were more than 120 gun deaths last year. Criminal mafias — who operate loan sharking and protection rackets — are a plague.

In the old days, Abu Sabir said, Palestinian militants had guns, criminal gangs had guns, but ordinary families did not. Now they do. He said it’s a status symbol for young men, who share images of themselves brandishing their weapon on social media.

“They watch movies and television, like everybody,” he said.

‘Not a badge of honor’

The gun dealer and security experts described the black market for arms as multifaceted — and thriving. Brand-name weapons are smuggled across the borders with Jordan and Egypt, through Sinai, and from Lebanon, which is awash with weapons from Syria’s long civil war.

Some criminal gangs specialize in gun thefts, targeting the homes of Israeli civilians and soldiers who have permitted weapons. Some Israelis might claim their guns were stolen, but in fact they were sold to middle men.

Weapons and ammunition have also been pilfered from Israeli military armories.

In November, Israeli media reported that 70,000 bullets and 70 grenades were stolen from an IDF base in the Golan Heights in the north.

In October, about 30,000 bullets were stolen from ammunition warehouses in the IDF’s Sde Teiman base in the south. Eight Bedouin Israeli men were later arrested for suspected involvement in the break-in.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz caused a stir when it published a graphic showing the weaponry stolen from IDF bases between 2013 and 2020: the partial list included 32 assault rifles, 527 grenades, 10,308 bullets — and two land mines.

Theft from IDF bases was so common that the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held hearings in 2021.

At the time, Major General Aharon Haliva, commander of the IDF’s Operations Directorate, told lawmakers that “any IDF-issued weapon that finds its way to the public is not a badge of honor for us.”

Clashes erupted between Palestinians and Israeli forces after a raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jericho and an adjacent refugee camp early on Feb. 4. (Video: Reuters)

Meir Elran, a retired brigadier general and senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, co-authored a report last year that found “tens of thousands of weapons” in Israeli Palestinian communities are stolen from IDF bases or smuggled from the West Bank, where guns have long been in circulation among militant groups, and where more young men have been joining loosely knit armed gangs.

Young Palestinians arm themselves for a new era of violent resistance

A parallel surge in illegal guns is occurring in Israel’s Arab communities, where “anarchy has emerged … and the governmental vacuum has been filled by criminal elements that have gradually taken over broad areas of life,” the researchers found.

The anarchy creates its own cycle of criminal violence within Palestinian communities that is different from political violence, but can be just as deadly.

In an interview, Elran said Israeli security forces focus more on guns in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as those are most likely to be diverted for use in terrorist attacks.

‘Civilians save lives’

At an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday to address the recent attacks, Netanyahu promised his government would “expand and expedite the issuing of weapons permits to thousands of Israeli civilians.”

As an example, Netanyahu pointed to the thousands of volunteers and staff who serve as paramedics, in ambulances and search and rescue crews. Only a small number of them carry weapons.

“Imagine if they and others were armed,” Netanyahu said, adding that “heroic, armed and trained civilians save lives.”

Although visitors may assume that guns are ubiquitous in Israel, with armed police, border forces, soldiers and private security guards, it is not easy for Israeli civilians to get a weapons permit. Those who do are usually allowed only one handgun and 50 bullets.

There is no “right to bear arms” here. To get a permit, an applicant must speak Hebrew, be over 27 years of age if they have not served in the military or at least 21 years old if they have served. They must submit health records, sit for an interview and are required to demonstrate proficiency at a gun range.

Civilians must demonstrate that they need a gun because of their work or where they live. Permits are easier to obtain for Israelis who live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“It’s not like America,” said Gat, the CEO of Caliber 3. “You don’t go into a supermarket and come out with a gun.” He said it was important to train and be vigilant. “I don’t want you to have a gun hidden at home. You need to have it with you.” All Israeli gun permits are carry permits.

According to data released by the National Security Ministry this week, less than 2 percent of the population has a gun license. In comparison, 30 percent of U.S. adults say they personally own a gun, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

After Arab-Jewish violence erupts inside Israeli towns, a divided country may never be the same

Applications to own a gun surged here after the May 2021 riots in mixed Jewish and Arab cities in Israel, and the latest bloodshed is expected to spark a similar increase in demand.

The government’s new National Security Minister, the far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir, on Thursday announced he would double the staff at the gun licensing department and require the staff to work longer hours to clear up the backlog of applications.

Ben Gvir pointed to the shooting outside the synagogue in East Jerusalem “where there was no civilian with a weapon and with great sorrow seven holy Jews were massacred, and the incident in the City of David, where thankfully a civilian fired his personal weapon and quickly neutralized the terrorist.”

But Samah Salaime, a founder of Na’am Arab Women in the Center, said loosening gun permits isn’t the answer, pointing out that more weapons in Israel’s Palestinian towns have already fueled soaring crime rates, including homicides that are barely investigated by Israeli police. “Something like 80 percent are never solved,” she said.

“Having more angry, scared men with more guns will be a disaster,” Salaime said. “We will all pay a price for this stupid policy.”