Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hailed the seizure of arms and arrest of dozens of gunrunners on Tuesday in what the police have touted as the largest weapons bust in Israel’s history.
At an event at police headquarters in Tel Aviv, where the weapons were displayed, Bennett described the number of unauthorized firearms on Israeli streets “as one of the largest illegal arms caches in the Middle East.”
According to a 2020 Knesset report, some 400,000 illegal weapons are circulating in Israel, the vast majority in Arab communities. Tuesday’s busts netted 40 rifles, 13 pistols, two machine guns and two explosive devices.
“We have declared war on lawbreakers in the Arab sector,” Bennett said. “We are taking action. We are not [just] talking, but doing.”
“To the Arab citizens of Israel, I want to say: You deserve personal security; therefore, we are here taking action and we will continue to do so,” the premier added.
Bennett also issued a warning to arms traffickers and others involved in violent crime.
“We will not give up, we will not relent. We have you in our sights and we will pursue you… We will settle scores with you and we will put you on trial, and you will pay,” he said.
The prime minister’s statement came after dozens of illegal arms traders were arrested overnight and early Tuesday morning as part of what the Israel Police described as the biggest sweep of contraband arms in the country’s history.
The arrests followed a year-long operation in which a former criminal turned undercover agent penetrated the illegal arms trade in the Arab community, police said in a statement.
His work has implicated 78 of the biggest illegal arms dealers in the country, police said.
In the raids, 1,600 officers, including Border Police forces, arrested 64 suspects in 25 Arab communities, in the north and central regions of the country. Among those detained were a father and his three sons in the northern town of Kabul, who were arrested for running “a family business that traded in illegal weapons.”
More arrests are expected, Channel 12 news reported.
The undercover operative, a former criminal who switched sides, spent his time as a member of an organized crime group that provides weapons for “the big bosses” in the criminal underworld, police said.
He was enlisted in August 2020 and started operating by November last year. Over the past year, acting in his undercover role, he purchased 53 weapons in 48 deals, including two explosive devices that could be set off using a cellphone.
According to Channel 12, the agent spent time in prison and police proposed he work for them.
During the operation he spent some NIS 4 million ($1,289,000) buying the weapons, the station reported.
Investigators believe most of the weapons came from the West Bank and were smuggled into the country from Lebanon and Jordan. The rest were stolen from Israeli army bases.
Purchases made by the agent included 25 M-16s, seven AK-47s and a MAG machine gun of a kind used by dozens of militaries around the world, including Israel’s.
Police said the number of weapons traders arrested and the volume of weapons seized was the biggest in the country’s history.
Among those arrested were a soldier in the Golani infantry brigade and a 13-year-old boy, the Ynet news site reported.
The agent, who was given the nickname “Ocean” after the series of films starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt, will now be transferred to the Interior Ministry’s witness protection program, Channel 12 news said.
The operation was launched under Northern District police chief Shimon Lavi’s directive of “drying up the swamp and not just catching the mosquitos,” as the force cracks down on illegal weapons in northern Arab communities, police said.
“This is a real war for the future daily life of all the citizens of the country and their personal security” and against criminal influence on local authorities, the diversion of public funds, and extortion, Lavi said in a statement.
“This amounts to huge sums of money and if we do not continue to work to eliminate them, they will grow stronger,” he said.
Arab communities have seen a surge in violence in recent years, driven mainly by organized crime.
Since the beginning of 2021, 106 were killed in suspected homicides, according to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit. Some 90 were citizens of Israel, and another 16 were Palestinians, either from East Jerusalem or with Israeli residency.
Arab Israelis 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. The community has also suffered from decades of neglect.
In August, Bennett said that violence and crime in Arab Israeli communities was a “national calamity.”