Three Israelis were charged on Wednesday with smuggling air-powered rifles into the West Bank, where they were converted into lethal weapons, the Shin Bet security service said. The Shin Bet and Israel Police also arrested three Palestinian residents of Hebron, in the West Bank, in the operation, the Shin Bet said.
Israel’s Southern District state prosecutor filed “severe indictments” against all suspects in the case on Wednesday in a Southern District Court, the Shin Bet said, without specifying the charges.
Airsoft guns are toy firearms that fire spherical rounds, typically made of plastic, at a low velocity. They are often replicas of actual guns and are used for recreational purposes. They are, for the most part, not dangerous if used with eye protection.
Airsoft guns are available for purchase in Israeli stores for as little as NIS 300 ($90). A small industry has sprung up in Israel and the West Bank that specializes in converting these toys into lethal weapons by changing the barrel and the internal mechanism to allow it to hold live rounds. These “converted weapons” are less powerful than proper firearms, and also far, far cheaper, but they can easily still harm and even kill people, according to the Shin Bet.
Over the years, the Israel Police and Israel Defense Forces have cracked down on the phenomenon — including a major bust last year — but their efforts are generally focused on the West Bank. The Shin Bet’s investigation was one of the few to involve Israeli suspects.
According to the Shin Bet, over the past two years, the primary suspect, Yuri Shaulov, a Sderot storeowner, sold a number of airsoft rifles to Palestinians in the West Bank through two Bedouin intermediaries, “despite knowing that it was illegal to sell them in the West Bank and that the weapons that he sold were meant to be converted into proper firearms.”
The security service identified the Bedouin Israeli suspects as Hassan Al-Ubra, from the town of Rahat, and Fares Abu Al-Qia’an, of Hura, saying they served as the go-betweens for Shaulov and physically smuggled the devices into the West Bank.
According to the Shin Bet, the primary buyer of the airsoft rifles was Muhammad Abu Hiya, an alleged weapons dealer from the city of Hebron. Abu Hiya resold the weapons and parts to others in Hebron who then converted them into makeshift firearms, the Shin Bet said. The identities of the other two Palestinian nationals involved were not released.
Converted weapons have been used in several terror attacks in recent years, including a 2016 shooting in Jerusalem that killed a police officer and civilian, and the 2015 killing of a couple in the West Bank.
The homemade weaponry has also been used in several shooting attacks directed at Israeli troops in the West Bank in recent years, the Shin Bet said.
“The sale of these guns feeds a dangerous industry of makeshift weapons production, which make their way to terrorist figures and are used for attacks against Israeli targets,” the Shin Bet said.
So-called “Carlo” guns, or Carl Gustav submachine guns, were commonly used during a wave of terror attacks in Israel in 2016. These, however, were often manufactured in workshops from raw materials, rather than converted from existing devices, as in the case of these airsoft rifles. The homemade or craft-produced rudimentary weapons were inaccurate and had a limited range, but were cheap and lethal, and difficult for Israeli authorities to control, though Israeli security forces have cracked down on the workshops that manufacture these weapons in recent years to some degree of success