ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 190

On porous Jordan border, Israel starts to see success against rampant gun-smuggling

IDF and police field commanders tell ToI they have managed to foil around 80% of attempts this year, seizing nearly 500 guns; but along the eastern frontier, challenges persist

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

In the evening of October 3, soldiers monitoring surveillance cameras spotted a man picking up a suspicious package at the border with Jordan, close to the Palestinian West Bank village of az-Zubaidat. The soldiers were expecting the man — a courier in a large gun-smuggling ring — after weeks of undercover intelligence-gathering by police.

The soldiers reported what they had seen to a joint military-police operations center, which dispatched officers and troops to the scene. When they came to arrest the courier, a second man spotted by troops in the area took off in a vehicle. The first man, a Palestinian from az-Zubaidat, was caught carrying 61 handguns and an assault rifle. The second man, an Israeli from the Bedouin town of Basmat Tab’un, another member of the smuggling network, was detained by police after a brief chase and the car he was driving was impounded.

The success of the operation, one of many in recent months, was far from a given. In past years, the weapons smuggler might have slipped into Israel or the West Bank unnoticed. Or, if he was spotted, soldiers may have only had a superior to alert; by the time the information filtered through the chain of command to the relevant police or Shin Bet officials, the smuggler would have been long gone, his guns distributed to any criminals or terrorists who were willing to pay.

But today, Israeli authorities say they are beginning to gain the upper hand in a relentless battle to stymie the mass smuggling of arms into Israel and the West Bank, where the weapons are helping fuel an uptick in attacks by terror groups and deadly criminal activity within Israel’s Arab communities.

Efforts have ramped up against the gun-running operations following a “deep understanding by decision-makers — both the police and the government — that the Jordanian border is the most intensive source of fuel for crime in the Arab community, and for terror,” said Chief Superintendent Ronen Kalfon, who leads a police anti-smuggling unit known as Magen.

In the past year, the Israel Police and the Israel Defense Forces, with some assistance from the Shin Bet security agency, have managed to foil dozens of smuggling attempts along the 309-kilometer (192-mile) border Jordan shares with Israel and the West Bank, counting over 480 weapons seized.

Weapons seized by security forces in the Jordan Valley, after an alleged gun-smuggling attempt over the border with Jordan on October 3, 2022. (Israel Police)

For comparison, in 2020 and 2021 combined, just 276 firearms were seized along the eastern border, Lt. Col. Amichai Hod, the commander of the Lions of the Jordan Battalion, told The Times of Israel during a tour of the border last month.

Attempts to smuggle guns over the border are usually foiled by soldiers operating surveillance cameras, who spot suspects and then dispatch troops and officers to the scene.

Other times, the Shin Bet or police intelligence will tip off forces that a smuggling attempt is planned, and troops and officers will ambush them.

Unlike Israel’s other frontiers — with Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria — its border with Jordan is relatively unguarded due to its sheer length, and lacks significant fencing in many areas, making it an obvious channel for large-scale smuggling.

Hod’s battalion is part of the IDF’s Jordan Valley Brigade, which is tasked with defending about 150 kilometers of the eastern frontier, from the northern part of the Dead Sea in the West Bank to the Hamat Gader hot springs in the Golan Heights. This stretch is thought to be where most smuggling incidents occur, due to its proximity to both Jordanian and Palestinian towns.

The IDF’s Yoav Brigade, meanwhile, is responsible for the sparsely populated southern section, from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, where few smuggling attempts are recorded.

Lt. Col. Amichai Hod, the commander of the Lions of Jordan Battalion, speaks to The Times of Israel at a military post near the West Bank settlement of Hemdat, November 28,  2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Officials say the weapons that make it over the border — likely tens of thousands over the past decade — have fueled a surge in violence in the Arab community, and have been used by Palestinian terrorists shooting at soldiers and civilians in the West Bank at almost unprecedented levels in recent months.

Foiling these smuggling attempts is a “strategic mission for Israel,” Hod said.

“If a weapon comes over the border and is used by criminal elements to harm civilians, or used by terrorists to harm soldiers — either way, it’s not good,” he said.

“If there is a successful smuggling in my area, and I don’t catch it… it bothers me, personally,” said Hod.

But stanching the flow of weapons has proven difficult.

Among the issues cited by the battalion commander is topography. While the border region along the southern Arava desert is mostly flat, barren wilderness, north of the Dead Sea the Jordan Valley’s undulating waves of short, steep hillocks run alongside the Jordan River, which forms the actual border.

Hod pointed to one area of yellow hills between the river’s floodplain and Israel’s fence, where deep swales between the bluffs provide cover for smugglers.

“These hills cause us dead areas, because of all the small channels,” he said. “It’s impossible to control. I can’t put a soldier on each peak. We are at probably the best vantage point, and you can’t see what’s happening in each channel.”

“Nobody can get through with a car, but by foot? With ease,” he said.

View of the Jordan Valley from a military post near the West Bank settlement of Hemdat. The Jordanian villages of al-Balawinah and Kuraymah are seen in the distance, November 28, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

A rusting several-meter tall chain link fence, equipped with sensors and augmented with barbed wire in some areas, isn’t much help to Hod when it comes to defending the border. Further south, outside of his jurisdiction, the situation is far worse, with sections of the border that lack any proper fence and are only equipped with barbed wire.

Since the early 2010s, Israel has embarked on a widescale project to upgrade its passive border defenses on a number of frontiers, replacing fencing along the Gaza Strip, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon with taller, reinforced, and more sophisticated barriers outfitted with far more accurate sensors. A 30-kilometer (18-mile) portion of the border with Jordan, near the southernmost city of Eilat and the new Ramon International Airport, has also been upgraded in a similar fashion, but there are no plans to extend it further.

“This is the only fence that has been left in this less-strong condition,” Hod said.

“They won’t replace it, the work would be massive,” he said, noting the length of the border. “And it’s a peaceful border, so it’s probably more about the money,” Hod said jokingly. “Just an insane amount of money.”

Costs for high-tech upgraded borders can run into the billions. In 2013, the 400-kilometer (245-mile) Israel-Egypt border fence was completed at an estimated cost of NIS 1.6 billion ($470 million), making it one of the largest construction projects in Israel’s history. The sophisticated 65-kilometer (40-mile) fence with the Gaza Strip, completed last year, which includes an underground barrier to prevent the digging of tunnels, cost more than twice that amount, an estimated NIS 3.5 billion ($1.1 billion). For just the small upgraded portion of the Israel-Jordan border completed in 2016, Israel shelled out NIS 300 million ($88 million).

“This area, the whole Jordan border, is the easiest to breach,” said Hod. “Here, you can dig under, or simply cut a hole,” he said.

View of the border between Israel and Jordan, in the Jordan valley, in the West Bank, on June 17, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

Still, Hod said the fence he is tasked with defending was in relatively good shape, despite the fact that some sections have not been touched since the 1970s, when Israel first built it.

He said detecting holes was a challenge with the less-sophisticated fence. “In some areas, we can detect a breach as it happens, because of a sensor. In other areas, less so; it depends on the day. Because it’s such a massive area, when you fix one area, another area gets broken,” Hod said.

According to Hod, troops in the Jordan Valley Brigade drive along the entire fence every single morning to check if there had been any breaches overnight that went undetected.

Despite all the challenges, Hod said that in the battle against the gun smugglers, Israel is “not the weak side.”

“We have good observation abilities that are only improving, especially in the past year,” Hod declared. “There are always things we will miss, but we’re bringing in more advanced abilities to completely seal off areas from smuggling incidents.”

Chief Superintendent Ronen Kalfon, the commander of Magen police anti-smuggling unit. (Courtesy).

An unrelenting crime wave resulting in record-breaking levels of bloodshed in the Arab Israeli communities has injected new urgency into stemming the flow of weapons, with policymakers now viewing anti-smuggling efforts as a top priority, said Kalfon, the head of the Magen anti-smuggling unit– an acronym for Negev Border Intelligence.

Numerous types of weapons are being seized by authorities on the border with Jordan, including M16 assault rifles, Kalashnikovs, shotguns, and even unmarked pistols with murky origins, according to Magen.

Kalfon told The Times of Israel last month that the vast majority of weapons currently used by criminal gangs in Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the West Bank are smuggled into Israel overland from Jordan.

Other sources of arms include shoddier locally made knockoffs and other makeshift weapons, as well as handguns nicked from Israeli owners and rifles stolen from IDF bases, though military figures show armory robberies becoming slightly more rare in recent years.

Over the past year, according to Kalfon’s estimate, authorities have managed to foil 70 to 80 percent of weapon smuggling incidents on the Jordan border, a massive increase over several years ago, when that number stood at around 10-15%. Kalfon cited trends his unit has analyzed, intelligence from informers and agents, and weapons seized both during smuggling attempts and from final users, to estimate how many smuggling incidents authorities were likely missing.

Both Kalfon and Hod attributed the increased success rate to a strategic shift by security forces on the Jordanian border to concentrate less on drug smuggling and more on thwarting arms runners. While the Egyptian border is known as Israel’s main drug-smuggling corridor, narcotics and other contraband also make it into Israel via Jordan at times.

Hod noted that his battalion, which is also responsible for operations in West Bank towns near the Jordan Valley, was now also paying “drastically” more attention to the border than the West Bank. He admitted that the solution was far from perfect, but said the trend would continue.

“The Palestinian issues, checkpoints, settlements, it requires a lot of attention, but we have moved a large portion of our attention to the border, and sometimes it is a higher priority than [West Bank] issues,” he said.

Weapons seized by security forces along the border with Jordan, August 24, 2022. (Israel Police)

Hod added that during times of increased security tensions, such as currently, he might concentrate more on the West Bank.

“But in general, the Jordan Valley gets a lot more attention than it did in the past,” he said.

Officials have justified the shifts by noting that stopping arms smuggling addresses a problem at the root of the terror threat and deadly crime.

And they say it is working. Hod noted that as far as Israeli authorities could estimate, the number of smuggling attempts had gone down in the past year.

He said he expects even more weapons to be seized in the future, but would not say Israel is winning the battle against the smuggling incidents quite yet.

“We are starting to lose less,” he said.

‘We synchronize everything’

Kalfon also attributed the increased success rate to security agencies working together “arm-in-arm.”

The IDF, police and Shin Bet security agency have established a joint operational headquarters in the past year to work closer together on foiling large smuggling rings or those specifically intended for terrorism.

“The police are spearheading the effort against weapons smuggling, using the army, which has units spread along the border, and they are also assisted with certain capabilities from the Shin Bet,” Kalfon said.

A Magen unit police officer inspects weapons seized by Israeli security forces during a gun-smuggling attempt along the border with Jordan on March 11, 2022. (Israel Police)

The IDF has observation abilities to detect smuggling attempts, and hundreds of troops are ready on the ground to be dispatched to the scene. Police also have hundreds of cops at the ready, but are more involved in detecting larger rings, as well as formally arresting the suspects and taking the guns for inspection. At times, the suspects will drive away from the scene before soldiers are able to detain them, whereupon police will launch a pursuit.

Meanwhile, the Shin Bet will provide both the army and police with intelligence on planned smuggling attempts when relevant.

“We all sit together; either we discuss intelligence before a smuggling attempt, or we discuss the operation itself as it’s ongoing, so there won’t be any misunderstandings,” Hod said. “We synchronize everything so everyone is on the same page.”

Joint operations between the police, army and Shin Bet are not uncommon, especially in the West Bank, and both Hod and Kalfon attested separately that the agencies worked well together, without any power struggles.

Hod said the cooperation allowed them to have the manpower needed to blanket the border region.

“Sometimes a police officer on the ground will have a soldier next to him. Depending on the type of smuggling and the time we have, we figure out the best way to catch them and how to divide the work,” he said.

Firearms seized by Israeli soldiers during an alleged smuggling attempt on the border with Jordan, near the Dead Sea, on May 22, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Cross-border cooperation between Israeli officers and their Jordanian counterparts is also working well, according to Kalfon.

“There is excellent cooperation between Israel Police and the Jordanian police, there’s cooperation also between the Israeli army and Jordanians; brigade and battalion commanders talk to their counterparts,” he said.

“It’s in both sides’ interest, and more than once we have together managed to uncover larger rings and prevent smuggling attempts on the border,” Kalfon added. “We give them intelligence, they give us intelligence, and the cooperation is excellent.”

Jordanian authorities “really don’t like the smuggling incidents,” Hod said. The Jordanian military did not respond to requests for comment.

Double-barreled threat

“There are all sorts of ways to smuggle,” Hod said, but Jordanian smugglers will usually do so by leaving bags containing weapons hidden at a drop site in Israel or the West Bank, where they will be picked up by Israeli or Palestinian gun-runners.

Drop sites are often located in the sliver of land between the internationally recognized border — marked by the Jordan River north of the Dead Sea — and where Israel’s border fence sits. The enclaves can be over 100 meters (328 feet) wide, depending on the terrain.

“In some areas, the enclaves are very large. They may leave the package right by the river, [and the smuggler] will cross from here, take it, and come back and drive off. Other times they may come right up to the fence, and leave it there and someone will collect it, or they might even throw it over the fence,” Hod said.

File: Suspects are seen along the Jordanian border during a weapons-smuggling attempt, in the summer of 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

It’s not always clear where the weapons are bound, and guns may be smuggled in before a buyer is lined up, though there is demand from both terrorists and criminals, said Kalfon.

According to a 2020 Knesset report, some 400,000 illegal weapons are circulating in Israel, the vast majority in Arab communities.

The Abraham Initiatives, which monitors and campaigns against violence in the Arab community, has tallied 115 Arabs killed in apparent homicides in Israel this year. Last year, 125 Arabs were killed in Israel in community violence — an all-time record, which topped the previous record of 96 set the year earlier.

The number of homicides among Jewish Israelis over the same period has remained relatively constant, according to police figures.

The smuggling is being fed by massive demand for guns in the Arab community, according to Kalfon, who claimed they were sought as a status symbol or for use in “terror attacks or disputes.”

Ola Najmi, who directs the Safe Communities initiative for the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, disputed that characterization, instead arguing that many Arabs wanted guns for personal protection, with police seen as largely ineffectual against powerful criminal gangs that have taken root in many Arab towns.

“Does this justify carrying a weapon? Of course not,” she said. “But there is a demand in the Arab community to protect themselves, and to attempt to provide personal security in illegal ways, for all sorts of reasons.”

Weapons seized by security forces near Neot Hakikar in southern Israel, after an alleged gun-smuggling over the border with Jordan on June 20, 2022. (Israel Police)

Israel has relatively strict gun control laws, with licenses to carry generally only given to those who can prove a need, such as for work or if they travel through dangerous areas. Those who have not served in the military or another security body are often turned down, making it difficult for many Arabs to obtain legal weapons.

Najmi said many young Arabs without prospects have turned to lives of crime for the money and prestige.

“Socially, a gun or a luxury car ostensibly provides one with a position of power within [Arab] society. Sadly, the criminal gangs have managed to get to lots of these youths,” she said.

Kalfon said many of the firearms being smuggled over the Jordan border were handguns, which are mostly bought by criminal gangs.

Many of the handguns seized over the past year are manufactured by a company called Delta Defence Group, or DDG, about which little is known.

Silah Report, a research site dedicated to weapons in the Middle East and North Africa, said in a lengthy analysis of the DDG pistols that it was difficult to determine the real manufacturer, let alone the country of origin of the guns, which have reportedly flooded Syria and Iraq as well.

The report said the DDG pistols are likely sold to Iraq from another country, and then trafficked in the Iraqi black market and the legal market of the Kurdistan autonomous region.

From there, the pistols are brought into Jordan, and later into Israel.

Assault rifles such as M16s and AK47s also make up a large portion of the weapons being brought over the border. Unlike the handguns, these are often destined to be used by terror groups, Kalfon said.

There is no exact data on the number of illegal weapons in the West Bank, but in recent months dozens of armed Palestinians have been seen marching through the streets of Nablus and Jenin, as well as other areas, following clashes with Israeli forces.

The guns those armed Palestinians have been seen holding are mostly M16 rifles, and not makeshift weapons such as the “Carlo,” the hallmark of a wave of shooting attacks in 2015 and 2016. Still, troops have seized several such makeshift guns during West Bank raids in recent months, indicating they continue to remain commonplace alongside the “quality” firearms.

Palestinian gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades carry their weapons during a military parade in Balata refugee camp, east of the city of Nablus, in the West Bank, on September 21, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

A small portion of busts turn up shotguns, which Kalfon said are also nearly always destined for terrorists. Sniper rifles and light machine guns have also been caught after being brought over the border on rare occasions.

He believes no heavy weaponry, such as rocket-propelled grenades, have been smuggled in recent years, citing the lack of any seized during smuggling attempts or afterward.

Officials believe the vast majority of illegal guns brought into Israel and the West Bank via Jordan originate in Syria and Iraq.

“They arrive from there because [Syria and Iraq] are failing states, and it’s very easy to buy weapons there,” Kalfon said.

Shotguns seized by Israeli security forces in a weapons smuggling attempt on the border with Jordan, August 8, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

He said Iraqi and Syrian weapon traders sign deals with Jordanian dealers, who then hand the guns over to Jordanian smugglers, who are in contact with Israeli and Palestinian smugglers. The smugglers in Israel and the West Bank will then “sell it off to anyone who’ll pay,” he said.

According to military and police estimates, a handgun in the West Bank can cost NIS 50,000 to NIS 60,000 ($15,000-$17,500), and an assault rifle NIS 80,000 to NIS 90,000 ($23,500-$26,000), both of which are even more expensive in Israel proper, and far cheaper when initially purchased from Jordan.

“The financial interest is above all other interests. I don’t think the smugglers think about where the guns are going, or if they’re going to kill someone,” said Hod. “The profits are huge. That’s the reason for the constant smuggling. Even if we catch some of the smugglers, financially it’s still worth it for them.”

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