Knesset okays minimum sentences for possession, trafficking of illegal weapons

New law mandates a sentence of at least one-quarter of maximum term; justice minister hails legislation, opposition laments window for judges’ discretion

A ceremony after the largest-ever police operation against illegal gun dealers, in Tel Aviv, on November 9, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A ceremony after the largest-ever police operation against illegal gun dealers, in Tel Aviv, on November 9, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In a bid to tackle rising crime, particularly in Arab communities, the Knesset passed a bill on Tuesday morning mandating minimum sentences for possession and trafficking of illegal firearms.

According to a 2020 Knesset report, some 400,000 illegal weapons are circulating in Israel, the vast majority in Arab communities, which have seen a surge in violence in recent years, driven mainly by organized crime.

The legislation, proposed by MK Sharren Haskel (New Hope), passed its second and third readings during an overnight session at the parliament.

The law passed with a four-vote majority after all objections were rejected.

The bill enacts a temporary provision whereby those convicted of possession and trafficking in illegal firearms will be given a minimum penalty that is equivalent to a quarter of the maximum penalty for the crime.

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi, one of the few opposition lawmakers present for the vote, attacked the bill, lamenting that it left a window for judges to use their discretion when sentencing.

A display in Rahat of seized weapons, December 6, 2021 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

However, MK Gilad Kariv of the coalition Labor party pushed back during the debate, saying that the opposition’s absence from the Knesset session showed that its members had more of a desire to create conflict with the judiciary than to solve the problem of surging crime.

“I see that the opposition benches have been left empty. There is a great deal of absurdity in hearing opposition members lament the state of crime, when it takes time to correct the cumulative failures of 12 years [of the now-opposition being in power], and it cannot be done in just several months,” Kariv said, according to Channel 12 news.

“Instead of the opposition joining up with the coalition on the issue of violence and saying that there is no dispute on this issue when we are initiating a proposal that is reasonable, they are clashing over this bill. But we understand that this is just another opportunity for them to clash with the judiciary,” Kariv said.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar welcomed the passage of the bill, saying that his New Hope party was fulfilling an electoral promise to deal with the problem of illegal weapons.

“Punishments that deter are needed to deal with the national scourge of illegal weapons,” Sa’ar tweeted. “We will continue to work to restore law and order throughout the country.”

Then-Likud MK Sharren Haskel speaks at a primary campaign event for then-Likud leadership candidate Gideon Sa’ar, in Netanya, December 23, 2019. (Flash90)

Last month, police carried out what they said was the largest weapons bust in Israel’s history, seizing arms and arresting dozens of gunrunners.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said the drive against crime in Arab communities is a “critical effort.”

Leaders and community members blame police, who they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence, which includes family feuds, mafia turf wars and violence against women.

Both government officials and civil society experts say the violence in the Arab community is the fruit of decades of state neglect. Over half of Arab Israelis live under the poverty line. Their towns and cities often have crumbling infrastructure, poor public services and few job prospects, leading some young people to collaborate with organized crime.

Bennett on Monday toured the south of the country, where he reviewed efforts to combat organized crime in Arab communities, declaring it a concern for the entire nation. But the prime minister drew criticism for only touring a lookout point over Rahat, rather than paying a visit inside the city.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a tour of the south on December 6, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

In the south, there have been longstanding complaints from local officials and residents about crime, much of which they say originates in Bedouin communities. Hebrew media has repeatedly broadcast footage of wild driving including car races and road stunts, as well as incidents of gunfire in the south.

There has also been a recent increase in rock attacks on buses, allegedly by Bedouin teenagers.

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