ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women

Domestic violence exacerbated by wartime, raising concerns over looser gun policies

Since the Knesset made it easier to qualify for a gun license last month, welfare groups register an uptick in firearms concerns for roughly 13,200 annual domestic abuse victims

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Victim of domestic violence and abuse. (djedzura/ iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Victim of domestic violence and abuse. (djedzura/ iStock by Getty Images)

Domestic abuse remains a persistent problem during Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas, and women’s groups caution that wartime stress and relaxed gun regulations aimed at pushing firearms into civilian hands may only exacerbate violence that affected more than 13,200 people in 2022, 69 percent of whom are women, according to figures collected by the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry.

Within a week following the October 7 Hamas massacre, some 41,000 new gun permit requests were submitted, according to data presented to the Knesset’s National Security Committee.

While the Welfare Ministry registered a drop in requests for help attributed to wartime uncertainty and instability, other organizations have said they have had to up their service offering to meet increased wartime demand, in figures released ahead of Saturday’s United Nations-sponsored International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Helpline calls placed in the nearly seven weeks since Hamas stormed Israel and triggered the current war in Gaza have risen 45%, said the director of hotline services for Na’amat, a leading Israeli organization among the two dozen or so that provide services to victims of domestic abuse.

About 70% of those nearly 200 calls Na’amat receives a month are related to domestic abuse, said Gali Brin, using a broad definition that stretches the spectrum from verbal, economic and control abuse to physical violence.

New among callers’ concerns is fear that their partners can now obtain a weapon, either through joining a newly formed community security organization or by applying for a firearms license through criteria recently loosened on October 15.

“This is a type of call that we didn’t have” before the war, Brin said. She added that while she has only received a handful of calls from women concerned about their unreported abusive partners obtaining firearms, “the fact that women start to fear it and it’s rising” indicates a worrisome trend.

The Welfare Ministry released figures on Monday that it had received 18 requests in the weeks since firearm permit criteria were relaxed to conduct a danger assessment related to weapons permits, compared to six in the entire 2022 calendar year.

Ultra-orthodox undergo weapons training in central Israel, November 5, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

These concerns were echoed by others from the about two dozen organizations that operate hotlines and shelters for battered women, men and their children in Israel.

On Tuesday, women’s groups told the Knesset State Control Committee that it was urgent to review the new firearm license regulations to prevent femicide. The meeting ended abruptly after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who pushed for the relaxed regulations, ordered the head of his ministry’s Firearm Licensing Department to leave as part of a spat with the committee chair.

The eased regulations are not the first concern women’s groups voiced against Ben Gvir, who earlier this year delayed, and ultimately softened, legislation to permit electronic monitoring of domestic abusers.

Approved in mid-October by the Knesset’s National Security Committee, the new firearms regulations reduce service eligibility requirements for obtaining a firearm, such that men over 21 can obtain a permit if they served in a combat role for one year or finished two years of general military service. Women will be eligible if they complete a year of national service, as an alternative to military service, and if they live or work in a qualified dangerous area.

The previous regulations required full military or two years of national service for all citizen applicants, or to wait until age 27 to apply.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir poses with members of the civilian security squad in Eilat after handing them each weapons on November 15, 2023. (Itamar Ben Gvir/X)

Israel’s gun permit policy has been historically strict, and is geared towards making weapons available for community and self-defense, rather than as a civil right. The Justice Ministry recommended limiting the new eligibility requirements to a one-year emergency order, but the committee passed them as permanent changes.

Citing reports from social workers, the Welfare Ministry on Monday said that women have expressed concern that “their partners used [a gun permit application] as a threat against them, and informed them that they intended to purchase weapons.”

Na’amat’s Brin said that “many of them are families that are not known to the welfare agencies,” part of a phenomenon she called “silent abuse.”

Illustrative: Children playing in a shelter for victims of family violence, 2020. (Courtesy)

Thus, “when that [abusive] partner goes to take out a gun license, there won’t be a warning identified in the network to prevent it,” she said. As a consequence, the increased accessibility of guns “increases the chance of domestic violence by five to eight percent.”

As of late November 2023, 20 women have been murdered by partners or family members, said Shalva Weil, the director of the Israel Observatory on Femicide at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This figure, she added, is on par with previous years.

Acknowledging the concern “among certain feminist organizations” that looser gun laws “will backfire on women,” Weil said that femicide, the “ultimate end of domestic violence,” has not increased during the war.

Two women were killed by family members since the war started, both by kitchen knives, she added, highlighting the persistent scourge of abuse extending beyond the gun issue.

Still, said Brin, “domestic violence continues” during the war.

“Whoever experienced domestic violence before the war is still dealing with this issue, in addition to all the war-related challenges like anxiety,” she added.

The Welfare Ministry indicated that, for example, social workers placed in hotels serving some of Israel’s about 100,000 civilians evacuated from frontline communities, observed “13 unusual incidents of domestic violence” in the first five weeks of the war.

Evacuees from Kibbutz Nir Oz in the lobby of a hotel in Eilat on October 17, 2023. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

In contrast to Na’amat, the Welfare Ministry said its own independent hotline saw a 30% decrease in domestic violence calls since the war began, receiving 342 in the war’s first five weeks. The ministry said it expects a spike immediately after the war.

“These days, damage to the sense of security, economic uncertainty and concern for children cause many people who are within a cycle of violence to postpone treatment for the problem,” said Eti Kisos, who heads social services for the Welfare Ministry.

Family or intimate partner violence disproportionately affects women. Of the 16,000 violent, sexual and threat-based crimes against women in 2021, 52% were perpetrated by a family member or partner, according to police file data collected by the Knesset.

Women represent 80% of domestic violence victims, according to the data.

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