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PM announces crackdown on illegal arms, but blocks inquiry to probe their origin

Meretz MK Issawi Frej asked the Knesset to investigate crisis of weapons flooding Arab society. Why did coalition MKs vote him down?

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Joint (Arab) List MK Ahmad Tibi, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset session, February 13, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Joint (Arab) List MK Ahmad Tibi, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Knesset session, February 13, 2012. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

If there is one subject most Knesset members agree on, at least in their public statements, it’s the need to collect illegal weapons, particularly among Arab citizens. That’s why a vote that took place in the Knesset last week might seem surprising. Why did the Likud-led coalition on January 6 stymie a proposal to set up a commission of inquiry to probe the the proliferation of illegal weapons? Does the prime minister have something to hide, as his detractors claim, or does he simply prefer to take care of the problem via other means, away from the limelight?

Here’s the issue: There are 500,000 illegal weapons circulating in Israel’s Arab communities, Meretz MK Issawi Frej, quoting what he says are unofficial police estimates, told The Times of Israel.

With people wounded every day, Frej calls the situation “civilian terrorism throughout Arab society.” Arab Knesset members have pleaded with the government for the past decade to confiscate these illegal weapons, to little avail, they say.

Last Wednesday, Frej told the Knesset plenary he would like to know the source of these weapons and why there has been no large-scale effort to collect them. To that end, he asked to establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry. Despite the fact that Netanyahu has said he is determined to confiscate illegal weapons, his Likud-led coalition voted against Frej’s initiative.

Meretz MK Issawi Frej, center. (Courtesy)
Meretz MK Issawi Frej, center. (Courtesy)

Frej spoke to the Knesset plenary on the same day that the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee held an emergency session on the problem of illegal weapons, specifically in the Arab community, in the wake of of Israeli Arab citizen Nashat Milhem’s shooting rampage in Tel Aviv on January 1. (Milhem used a sophisticated submachine gun apparently licensed to his father Mohammed, a security guard and former police volunteer.)

The day after the attacks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the Simta bar on Dizengoff Street where Milhem began his murderous shooting spree, said he was determined to bring the rule of law to Israel’s Arab minority.

Nashat Milhem, the Arab Israeli man who carried out the shooting attack in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016. (Israel Police)
Nashat Milhem. (Israel Police)

“I will not accept two nations within Israel: a lawful nation for all its citizens and a [second] nation-within-a-nation for some of its citizens, in pockets of lawlessness,” said Netanyahu. “You can’t say, ‘I am Israeli in my rights and Palestinian in my obligations.’ If you want to be Israeli, be completely Israeli and your foremost obligation is to follow the laws of the state.”

Netanyahu vowed to crack down on illegal weapons within Israel’s Arab community, which constitutes 20 percent of the population.

“It’s a sound bite, nothing more,” Frej told The Times of Israel regarding Netanyahu’s declaration, in light of the coalition’s subsequent across-the-board vote against his commission of inquiry initiative. “If Netanyahu were Pinocchio, his nose would be kilometers long. Everyone in the coalition knows about this problem of violence in the Arab sector, but they will do nothing because we are the backyard of the country.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to press after lighting a candle outside a pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, January 02, 2016, a day after two people were killed in a shooting at the bar. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to press after lighting a candle outside a pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv, January 2, 2016, a day after two people were killed in a shooting at the bar. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Asked what possible interest Netanyahu could have in dooming a proposal that seems to mesh with his own stated goals, Frej said, “If there is a commission of inquiry it will point to his failure to do anything over the past seven years he has been in office.”

Frej said that some members of the coalition have told him privately that they agree with him about the imperative for action.

“So I tell them, ‘Then vote with me.’ They say, ‘no we can’t, there is coalition discipline.’”

The Times of Israel contacted seven coalition ministers and Knesset members to find out the reasoning behind their vote against Frej’s proposal. What emerged from some of the conversations was firm support for the need to tackle the issue, but not via Frej’s suggested means of a commission of inquiry.

MK David Amsalem of Likud. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
MK David Amsalem of Likud. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Coalition chairman Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) said he was not familiar with that particular vote as he was abroad last week but that coalition votes are determined by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation headed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home). A spokeswoman for Shaked said that she too was absent last week and that the ministerial committee had been headed by MK Yariv Levin. Levin’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Asked about the source of the illegal weapons, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s office said that “this is a question for the police.” Erdan’s ministry oversees the police.

Frej said that he too has asked coalition members why they voted against the commission of inquiry. “They said, ‘The prime minister promised to take care of the illegal weapons.’”

“But he won’t take care of them,” added Frej. “What was is what will be, I am sure of it.’”

A spokesman for Likud MK David Amsalem told The Times of Israel that Amsalem does care about the problem of illegal weapons. This is why, as chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, he held the January 6 hearing.

Amsalem “is trying to solve the problem through his committee, so why do you need a commission of inquiry?” the spokesman asked. “Why do you need more and more commissions? Let’s investigate, see what’s going on. And the police promised to submit an action plan within 60 days, let’s give them a chance.”

For her part, Likud MK Anat Berko voted against the proposal because “she doesn’t think a commission of inquiry can advance the practical aspect of collection of weapons (which she of course favors),” her spokesman said. “In general, commissions of inquiry are not a solution, and in this case, everyone knows what needs to be done, but there is a fear that confiscating the weapons could be accompanied by violent clashes and even casualties. It would be helpful if Arab MKs not only called for collecting weapons but also backed up their calls by asking their constituents to allow the confiscation to take place without violent friction.”

Where do the weapons originate?

During his speech to the Knesset, Frej pointed to several inconsistencies in what Israeli officials say is the source of illegal weapons in the Arab community.

For instance, Public Security Minister Erdan told the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee on January 6 that 90 percent of the illegal weapons originated in the IDF. But an IDF representative reportedly said at the same meeting that only 80-90 firearms are stolen on average per year.

“What is the source of the weapons?” Frej asked the Knesset. “We want an answer. Doesn’t this require a commission of inquiry? Wake up. Why don’t you at least ask yourselves what has been happening in the IDF? Are stun grenades and light anti-tank weapons coming from the Palestinian Authority?”

Likud MK Anat Berko (center) verbally spars with Frej on January 6 (Screenshot Knesset Channel)
Likud MK Anat Berko (center) verbally spars with Frej on January 6 (Screenshot Knesset Channel)

“Yes,” interjected LIkud’s Berko.

“500,000 weapons from the PA coming into Israel?” Frej asked incredulously.

“I’ll give you a thousand dollars (to spend there, and you’ll see),” she replied, “They have factories.”

Frej shook his head, then told the plenary that in the absence of a commission of inquiry, conspiracy theories are circulating on the Israeli Arab street.

“What people are saying is that the establishment is flooding us with weapons so we will kill each other and won’t have time for universities and to advance ourselves. That is the conversation and it’s your fault. Is it true, is it not true? I don’t know.”

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