ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Head of national gun licensing unit resigns amid furor over Ben Gvir’s policies

Responding to Yisrael Avisar’s departure, National Security Ministry claims he was ‘pressured by attacks from the left’ against its drive to massively arm civilians

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in southern Tel Aviv, September 3, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in southern Tel Aviv, September 3, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The head of the gun licensing department at the National Security Ministry has resigned amid revelations over the licensing regulations applied under minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who has fast-tracked thousands of civilian gun permits, claiming it boosts public security against terror attacks.

Yisrael Avisar, who headed the National Security Ministry’s Firearm Licensing Department, handed in his notice Monday after six years in the department and the last three as its head.

Avisar’s move came after two stormy appearances at a Knesset oversight committee that heard how dozens of people have been granted temporary authority to approve gun license applications, among them the far-right Ben Gvir’s personal staff appointees, Knesset employees, and young women performing civilian National Service volunteer duty.

The National Security Ministry responded with a statement saying, “One who does not continue to carry out policy in accordance with the minister’s instructions… and is pressured by attacks of the left in various committees, cannot continue as the head of the firearms division.”

“A weapon saves lives, and the minister’s policy is being expanded and not reduced,” the statement declared.

Avisar met with Ben Gvir on Sunday and asked him to reconsider the licensing drive in light of criticism the department faced, the Israel Hayom news outlet reported. Ben Gvir declined the request and insisted that the more armed citizens there are, the better.

Israelis seen at a shooting range in Gush Etzion, in the West Bank, February 3, 2023. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Last week Avisar told the State Control Committee that Ben Gvir’s staff had set up an operations room to handle a massive surge in gun license applications but that there were concerns about the way it was operating, including possibly approving licenses for applicants who do not meet the criteria. Avisar also voiced worries that preferential treatment was being given to some applicants and revealed that as a precaution, his staff had blocked the name search feature in the application system so it could not be used by Ben Gvir’s associates.

Avisar said his department would consider revoking some of the licenses approved by Ben Gvir’s staff.

Yisrael Avisar (Youtube screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

The committee heard that since the outbreak of war with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip on October 7, there have been some 260,000 requests for gun licenses — a number that would ordinarily be expected over 20 years. The war erupted when some 3,000 terrorists burst through the border from the Gaza Strip and slaughtered 1,200 people, mostly civilians, severely undermining Israelis’ sense of personal security.

In the past, the licensing process would entail in-person interviews, but due to the war situation in which terror groups are barraging the country with rockets, the IDF Home Command instructed that such meetings be stopped. The National Security Ministry then decided that they would instead be conducted by phone, including by the National Service volunteers.

State Control Committee chairman MK Mickey Levy said, “The issues that have been revealed in the current debate have shocked the committee. This is not how a democratic country is supposed to function, even in an emergency. The committee does not accept the fast-track procedure — it’s a matter of life and death.”

The committee heard that the Knesset legal adviser had prohibited Knesset employees from dealing with gun licenses and that the Civil Service Commission had forbidden confidants of Ben Gvir from doing the same.

MK Mickey Levy, head of the State Control Committee, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At the meeting, a legal representative for the National Security Ministry said that Knesset employees and Ben Gvir’s appointees were no longer approved to authorize licenses but that the National Service women are.

Opposition lawmakers pointed out that the National Service staff are generally no more than 18 years old.

A week earlier, Avisar attended a previous meeting of the committee but was abruptly pulled out of the forum by Ben Gvir after he made remarks about the licensing situation.

The Haaretz daily had previously reported that Ben Gvir’s licensing operations room has a staff of 72 people. All of them were designated as “temporary licensing agents” after undergoing a day of training that enabled them to approve shooting range licenses, a key step toward obtaining a full permit to carry a firearm in the street. The report noted that, ordinarily, licensing agents undergo a monthlong course.

Sources told the newspaper that among those who were granted powers to authorize licenses were two of Ben Gvir’s secretaries, two advisers, and retired police officers.

Israelis practice shooting handguns at a shooting range in Jerusalem, April 3, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir, whose past activities as a far-right extremist have landed him several convictions, has championed greatly expanding the number of civilians authorized to carry a firearm, usually permitted only to those who meet a set of relatively strict criteria. As part of his drive, he has sought to soften the requirements for a gun license.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed Ben Gvir’s position in controversial remarks he made after a terrorist shooting attack last week in Jerusalem, during which a civilian passerby shot the attackers but was then himself gunned down by a soldier who also entered the fray.

“The reality of armed civilians is that many times it saves lives and prevents a big disaster,” Netanyahu said. “In the current situation, the policy should be continued. We may pay a price for it, that’s life.”

Women’s groups have been concerned about guns making their way into the hands of unreported domestic abusers, and domestic violence support organization Naamat has said that several women have expressed concern about their partners obtaining a firearm through wartime ease of access.

Avisar is the second senior official to resign under Ben Gvir’s term as minister. In September the ministry’s director general quit, citing “personal reasons.”

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