Israelis seek out gun ownership amid spike in Palestinian attacks

Minister announced plan to speed up licensing in wake of deadly shooting outside Jerusalem synagogue; gun range owner: ‘Even those who didn’t want one realized they needed one’

A firearms instructor looks on as Israelis train at a firing range in the Givat Ze'ev settlement outside Jerusalem, on February 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
A firearms instructor looks on as Israelis train at a firing range in the Givat Ze'ev settlement outside Jerusalem, on February 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

AFP — Pistol shots ring out and carbide lingers in the air at the gun range of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, as Tomer Gal completes the final stage of his firearms license assessment.

Like many Israelis increasingly fearful of surging violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gal decided to get a gun license — a lengthy process that firebrand National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has sought to rapidly fast-track.

“It’s for my security, but also for my household,” said the 35-year-old, an electrical contractor from Rehovot in central Israel, after firing his 9mm handgun under the watchful gaze of an instructor.

Gal, whose employees include Palestinians from the West Bank, works on construction sites in Israel, which he called “not the safest places.”

While Gal began his application over a year ago, his visit to a firing range in Givat Ze’ev came weeks after the deadliest gun attack on Israeli civilians in more than a decade.

On January 27, a Palestinian shot dead seven people outside a synagogue before being killed by police in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a deadly terror shooting attack in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem, January 27, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s police commissioner responded to the attack by calling on those eligible to carry a firearm to do so, and in the days that followed Ben-Gvir, head of the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party, said he would speed up licensing.

The synagogue attack was “an excellent example of the necessity and importance of civilians armed with guns,” the National Security Ministry said, while lamenting a massive backlog in license applications. At the time, more than 17,000 applications were still being processed.

Ben-Gvir said it was his “duty to expedite the process and dramatically cut the bureaucracy,” ordering official working hours increased to boost monthly license clearances from 2,000 to 10,000.

Former military officers were also exempted from requiring an interview as part of the process, a temporary measure which is set to expire in May.

Attacks and security incidents traditionally increase interest in gun licenses, an Israeli official told AFP, without providing further details on the recent hike in new applications.

The Israeli authorities’ plan to further arm the population has sparked concern in some quarters.

Hand guns are displayed for sale in a shop in the Givat Ze’ev settlement outside Jerusalem on February 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Volker Turk, the United Nations human rights commissioner, responded to Ben-Gvir’s proposal with a warning that greater gun ownership will “only lead to further violence and bloodshed.” Turk called on Israel’s authorities to “reduce the availability of firearms.”

“We know from experience that the proliferation of firearms will lead to increased risks of killings and injuries of both Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.

Under current laws, prospective owners must either live or work in West Bank settlements, or undertake a job exposed to potential danger or friction with Palestinians. Retired officers from Israel’s security forces also potentially qualify.

Applicants undergo police and medical screenings, followed by an interview at the National Security Ministry’s firearms licensing department. Only then can they purchase a gun, complete training, and then finally get a license.

Gal’s decision to buy a firearm came “around a year ago,” following an 11-day war in May 2021 between Israel and Hamas in the coastal Gaza Strip. The aftermath of the conflict saw a spate of knife attacks against Israelis and violent riots in mixed Jewish-Arab towns in Israel.

“It wasn’t directly because of the terror wave, but it affected things,” Gal said.

A firearms instructor looks on as Israelis train at a firing range in the Givat Ze’ev settlement, February 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

After the 2021 violence eased, Gal said he considered letting the license application drop — but when an Arab Israeli was accused of rape near his home, he bought his pistol.

“It was mainly pressure from my wife,” he said. “She really felt insecure.”

Yair Yifrach, 57, who owns the Givat Ze’ev shooting range, said recent violence had generated a rise in inquiries about gun ownership.

“After the Neve Yaakov attack, there’s again… a rise in purchases, questions and phone calls,” he said. Yifrach, who has carried a gun for 35 years, believes firearms used responsibly can increase security.

“We don’t have a police officer for each and every civilian in Israel,” he said.

After the 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, people “woke up” about the need to own a gun, Yifrach said.

“Even those who didn’t want one realized they needed one,” he added. “We’re not in Switzerland.”

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