ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 286

A man fires a pistol at an indoor shooting range during a qualification course in Katzrin in the Golan Heights on January 31, 2023. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)
Main image: An indoor shooting range in Katzrin in the Golan Heights on January 31, 2023. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)
Inside story'Mass armament must be a temporary, reversible measure'

Shocked by Oct. 7 failures, Israelis rush to buy guns, with government encouragement

In the months since the Hamas massacre, there were 6 times as many license requests for handguns as in all of 2022, causing some to worry that untrained people will soon wield them

Main image: An indoor shooting range in Katzrin in the Golan Heights on January 31, 2023. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is one of two dozen Israelis who arrive at the Jerusalem Shooting Range on Yanai Street on a recent Sunday morning to undergo the requisite training needed to receive a handgun.

“I don’t have a sense of urgency,” says Leibowitz. “But as a rabbi of a community, I do have a sense of responsibility because I know that what happened on October 7 could happen again.”

The rabbi of the Va’ani Tefilah community in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood adds, “Honestly, I am less scared now than at first and that might not be logical, but more a subjective psychological feeling since a few Sabbaths have gone by without event.

“But we saw the power of the surprise attack and the surprise attack can come at any time. If another front opens up, if we have terror flare up nationwide, the security forces are going to be spread thin,” he says.

Leibowitz is not alone in his desire to arm himself.

Israelis were shocked by the catastrophic failure of Israel’s much-vaunted security forces to foresee the events of October 7. That shock was compounded by the heart-wrenchingly slow and ineffectual Israeli response in the first hours of the attack.

Thousands of terrorists burst through the Gaza border fence, rampaging murderously through kibbutzim, towns and cities, temporarily commandeering IDF bases, massacring some 1,200 people and taking over 240 civilians and IDF soldiers as hostages in Gaza.

Citizens, either unarmed or far outmatched by the Kalashnikov and RPG-toting terrorists, waited for hours in bomb shelters or in hiding for military forces to arrive. Police and IDF officers and soldiers who arrived independently and in an unorganized way demonstrated tremendous bravery but were ultimately outnumbered and outgunned.

Now, tens of thousands of Israelis like Leibowitz — fearing October 7 could be repeated by Palestinians in the West Bank or mixed towns such as Jerusalem, Jaffa and Acre — are arming themselves in an attempt to claim a modicum of control over their security.

Deadly terrorist violence since October 7, including a November 30 shooting attack at the entrance to Jerusalem that left four dead, has reinforced to Israelis that their security remains tenuous.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz (L) and Avi Levy wear noise-blocking earphones as they wait to shoot at the Jerusalem Shooting Range, December 3, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

Leibowitz says the need to possess a handgun of his own hit him on the Friday after the October 7 attack.

“I literally was on the phone for hours that first Friday morning after October 7 looking for an armed guard for Shabbat. But anyone in my congregation with a gun who could provide security had been called up for reserve duty,” he says. “The next thing I did was call private security companies, but they told me they had a shortage of guards.

He says the congregation ended up having someone unarmed stand outside the synagogue with a cellphone so that he could give an early warning to congregants and call the police. “I felt really uncomfortable that Shabbat. Synagogues in Jerusalem have been targeted by terrorists in recent years, for instance in Har Nof and Neve Yaakov,” he says.

“The next day I filed for a license and I went to the closest store near where I live — where we are speaking now — and they told me they were sold out. So I got on a waiting list,” he says.

A gun named after an astronaut

Now, six weeks later, Leibovitz is finally getting his gun, a Ramon, manufactured by the Israeli firm EMTAN and named after the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Unprecedented numbers of Israelis want to arm themselves. A record 274,279 Israelis have filed for a handgun license between October 7 and December 25. And that number continues to grow at a pace of 500 to 600 per day on average.

For the sake of comparison, in all of 2022 — a record year before the present rise — 42,170 Israelis requested a handgun license.

Robust civilian mobilization is on display at shooting ranges. On a recent Thursday morning, dozens thronged Caliber 3, one of the largest, if not the largest, shooting ranges in Israel, located in Efrat’s industrial center.

Reserve-duty soldiers in uniform are grouped to prepare to enter Caliber 3’s urban warfare simulator or its 360-degree tactical shooting range. Many emerge looking invigorated.

Illustrative: Foreign tourists are taught how to use a gun as they participate in a two hour anti-terror course at the Caliber 3 shooting range, near the West Bank settlement of Efrat on July 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

Regular citizens with paperwork in hand approach Caliber 3’s reception area to register for pre-license training.

A man dressed in civilian clothing loads a Citroen sedan with a dozen M4 carbines, apparently destined for one of the hundreds of rapid response teams being created by the National Security Ministry in conjunction with the Israel Police. He covers the guns and a large wooden box of ammunition with clothes so they can’t be seen when the trunk is opened and drives off.

Caliber 3’s shop is packed with salespeople explain to potential customers the relative benefits of various handguns, with prices ranging from from NIS 3,500 to NIS 15,000 (approx. $1,000 to $4,000).

“There hasn’t been demand like this in 20 years,” says Shaul, a shooting instructor who works at Caliber 3 and at the Jerusalem Shooting Range. “People feel the need to fight back after what happened with Gaza.”

A female employee, her hand covering the receiver of the phone she cradles, interrupts Shaul, asking, “Do we have a used Ramon for around NIS 2,500?”

“No,” answers Shaul, “we’re sold out, tell them to try Givah Guns.”

Previous triggers for gun requests

Even before the end of 2022, when the present rightwing government was voted in, requests for handgun licenses were on the rise.

The trigger was Arab Israeli violence.

In May 2021, in protest against Operation Guardian of the Walls — Israel’s attempt to fight rocket attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza — thousands of Arab Israelis, distraught and angered by the civilian casualties resulting from IDF airstrikes — took to the streets and rioted. There were lynching attempts, arson, shootings, and massive destruction of property. Attackers set up roadblocks looking for Jews, particularly on the stretch of road between Beersheba and Dimona.

For several days Israeli police and security forces were unable to gain control in mixed Arab-Jews towns like Lod, Ramle, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre and in large Arab Israeli population centers.

Many felt their sense of personal security undermined, and requests for handgun licenses nearly doubled.

The aftermath of riots in the central Israeli town of Lod, seen in the early hours of May 12, 2021. A state of emergency was declared after hours of Arab mob violence (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Before 2021, yearly requests for handgun permits were steady at about 10,000. By the end of 2021, there were 19,407 requests.

In February of this year, shortly after taking office, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir began to make changes aimed at streamlining the process of receiving a handgun license, including a doubling of manpower to deal with applications.

Ben Gvir pointed to the difference between two terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, one perpetrated on January 27, in the Haredi neighborhood of Neve Yaakov in which seven people were murdered and the other the next day outside the Old City in which two were wounded.

“Where there was no civilian with a weapon… seven holy Jews were massacred, and in the City of David a civilian fired his personal weapon and quickly neutralized the terrorist,” said Ben Gvir at the time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visit the scene of a deadly terror shooting in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighborhood, January 27, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

In the wake of the October 7 massacre, Ben Gvir instituted additional reforms. In-person interviews with potential gun owners were replaced by telephone interviews.

Ben Gvir also did away with the need for full IDF service of three years and cut it down to one year of combat service or two years in noncombat roles.

He expanded the pool of eligible applicants — both men and women — to include anyone who performed one year of national service, provided they have no criminal record, history of violence or psychiatric illness.

Demand skyrocketed.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has consistently supported Ben Gvir’s gun license policy. At an emergency cabinet meeting on January 29, after the massacre in Neve Yaakov, Netanyahu promised his government would “expand and expedite the issuing of weapons permits to thousands of Israeli civilians.”

On October 25, Netanyahu supported increasing the number of armed private citizens and lauded the establishment by Ben Gvir’s ministry of 600 new rapid-response units manned by IDF reserves that would augment and work in conjunction with Israel Police in towns and cities across the nation.

“We are encouraging civilians, and are helping civilians to arm themselves with personal weapons for defense… We are doing so in a controlled manner,” said Netanyahu.

‘It’s plain luck that nobody was killed’

But not everyone thinks the way in which guns are being allocated is “controlled.”

Yosi Taguri, a veteran of an IDF combat unit, recounts his experience undergoing training at a shooting range in Netanya in late October. “It’s plain luck that nobody was killed on the shooting lane that day,” he says.

“People dropped guns with a round in the chamber,” recalls Taguri. “It was scary.”

Yosi Taguri, a former IDF shooting trainer, fears the proliferation of handguns among untrained citizens will lead to violence. (Courtesy)

Taguri renewed his gun license after October 7 because “if there is a real incident I might be able to respond,” but he is nevertheless appalled at the ease with which he saw guns being handed out.

“We were supposed to have four and a half hours of training — half theory in the classroom followed by a test, and half shooting practice on the range also followed by a shooting accuracy test, but we ended up finishing within two and a half hours,” he says.

Taguri claims the gun range did not have enough copies of the test, so the questions were answered together as a group, which meant that everyone passed, even those who might not have known the answers.

Taguri also says the short amount of time devoted to shooting hardly prepared the new gun owners for real-life situations.

“You can finish 100 rounds in a few minutes,” says Taguri, referring to the number of rounds one is required to fire to receive a license. “We are talking about giving people with zero ability something way more dangerous than a car, with way less training than is required for a driver’s license.”

Taguri, who served in IDF combat positions for 8.5 years, including 3.5 years training hundreds of IDF soldiers to shoot, says that from his experience, to be trained properly “you have to shoot thousands of rounds with your own handgun.”

He says that obtaining a gun license should be more like earning a pilot’s license. “You have to have proper training and an understanding of your surroundings and know how you react under pressure and how to operate in an urban environment. Even then, finding yourself in a situation in which you are the first to respond is rare to the point of being irrelevant.”

Likewise, Taguri says he fears the consequences of the present gun policy.

“It is terrible what is happening now. We will see this play out on the road and at intersections. Instead of someone coming at you with a stick, he will pull out a gun, because someone who uses a helmet to hit you [as happened in a serious incident of road rage violence last year], he would shoot you too.”

At the Jerusalem Shooting Range, most of the people seeking gun licenses seem to take the training seriously. Many, like Leibowitz, have experience from shooting firearms during their IDF service and have, as Leibowitz puts it, “the sanctity of bearing arms drilled into them.”

Israelis practice aiming their weapons in preparation for receiving a gun license, the Jerusalem Shooting Range, December 3, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

However, there are other voices.

According to a person present, an argument broke out between a shooting instructor and one of the trainees during the theoretical part of the course. The instructor tried to explain that Israeli law forbids using a personal handgun to prevent a robbery unless the robber poses an immediate threat to life. But the trainee refused to accept that this was the law.

Another participant, Avi Levy, 30, from Netivot, one of the Gaza border towns attacked by terrorists on October 7, is asked why he was applying for a license. He says, “I watched a lot of crime TV as a kid so it was always something I wanted to do.”

Levy, a recent immigrant from the US, adds, “But also, I live with my mom now and she is a little bit nervous about the situation after what happened there.”

The case for more gun licenses

Col. (res.) Dr. Efraim Laor is an adamant supporter of the government’s new gun policy.

He is one of 20 members of a National Security Ministry committee which, he says, recently presented its plan to create a national guard that will reportedly operate independently of the Israel Police and the IDF.

“Critics have no idea what they are talking about,” says Laor, who has in the past made controversial statements about open-fire policies and civilian casualties.

“Arabs own, according to some estimates, 300,000 illegal guns,” Laor claims. “They didn’t undergo any training, they did not shoot at a shooting range, they did not learn the laws for when it is permitted to use a firearm and when it is not, they did not study and internalize open-fire regulations.

“Do you know why they didn’t? Because most of them reject Israeli law,” he asserts.

Dr. Col. (res.) Efraim Laor, an expert in large-scale sudden disasters, is an adamant supporter of arming civilians. (Amir Bochanik)

It’s impossible to know precisely how many illegal guns are presently owned by Arab Israelis and Palestinians: Shai Malka, a spokesman for Ben Gvir, says he has heard various estimates and doesn’t want to comment.

“I can tell you that in one village in the center of Israel, police told us they estimated there were between 100 and 500 illegal guns,” says Malka. “That’s just one small village.”

In May 2021, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer, who was at the time minister for the development of the periphery and the Negev and the Galilee, asked then-public security minister Amir Ohana of Likud if it was true that there were 400,000 illegal guns in Israel. Ohana said he was familiar with the number but said that he could not verify it.

A November 2021 report by the Institute for National Security Studies on violence and crime in the Arab sector estimated that “the number of illegal weapons possessed by gangs and criminal organizations, as well as ordinary civilians for the purpose of self-defense, has increased” and that “tens of thousands of weapons in Arab communities are estimated stolen from IDF bases or smuggled from Palestinian Authority areas.”

According to the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss nonprofit tracking global firearms holdings, at the end of 2017 — the most up-to-date data available — there were 267,000 illegal guns inside Israel and another 56,000 illegal guns in the West Bank, or a total of more than 323,000.

About a quarter of a million Israelis presently own a registered handgun, according to National Security Ministry data.

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)

Gun smuggling continues to be a major security and crime threat.

According to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, between March 2021 and April 23, 2023, Israel Police and the IDF thwarted at least 35 smuggling attempts from Jordan, seizing more than 800 weapons.

On November 30, police and IDF troops foiled an attempt to smuggle 137 guns into Israel from Jordan. The smugglers are residents of Bedouin communities in the Yeruham area.

Malka, Ben Gvir’s spokesman, says, “The data shows that the number of people killed with registered guns is much smaller than the number of people killed in terror attacks. Guns in the right hands save lives.”

“I reject the thesis that the state can protect its citizens in big or small incidents,” says Laor. He claims there will always be a delay between the beginning of an incident and the point in time when the police or the IDF intervene. “And in that gap the citizen is on his own,” he says.

Laor, who argues most of the illegal arms are in the hands of Arab Israelis or Palestinians, believes the only way to even the playing field is by arming more Israelis. He argues that the security elite has a paternalistic approach toward civilians and sees them as incapable of defending themselves. This elite is convinced that the military and the police should have a complete monopoly over the use of deadly force.

“That’s why I am in favor of allowing someone who says he wants to protect his family to be armed,” says Laor, an expert in large-scale sudden disasters, which is the subject of his doctorate thesis at Queens College, London.

Handguns allegedly seized by Israel at the Allenby Crossing after a Jordanian MP tried to smuggle them into Israel, April 23, 2023. (courtesy)

“There is no doubt about this, and there are statistics to back this up, that in terrorist attacks where there were armed citizens in the vicinity who acted, the outcome was less severe thanks to those armed people. And that is true whether or not those armed were trained or not,” he claims.

Asked whether he knew of cases where an untrained armed citizen terminated a terrorist attack, Laor, 72, the former commander of the 7th Armored Brigade, who received accolades for his conduct during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, says that he did but did not provide an example.

“There is no dispute that a gun can reduce the severity of the terrorist attack,” he says.

Civilians as stopgap security?

Laor, co-founder and senior researcher at AFRAN – National Research Institute for Disaster Reduction, says that if it were up to him, he would go beyond the present loosened regulations — which restrict gun owners to 100 rounds, up from 50 — and allow Israelis to buy as much ammunition as they want.

“If people had been allowed to possess more rounds of ammunition on October 7, then many lives would have been saved on our side and many more terrorists would have been killed,” he suggests.

Laor is not the only one to support Ben Gvir’s policies.

On October 16, Deputy Police Commissioner Avshalom Peled told a Knesset committee dealing with the creation of more rapid response teams, “We are moving at a frantic pace to close the gaps on the ground. There are numerous initiatives of the National Security Ministry, including increasing the number of firearm licenses issued to civilians, which is the policy of the minister… The citizens’ sense of security was harmed. If my wife wants a firearm – that says it all.”

Members of the civilian security team of Kibbutz Malkia in northern Israel close to the Lebanese border are seen during a drill simulating the Infiltration of a terrorist into the kibbutz, July 19, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

But Ben Gvir’s ministry has been plagued by controversy after it emerged that unauthorized individuals close to Ben Gvir might have been involved in vetting gun license requests.

Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon said during a Knesset National Security Committee meeting on December 27 that there was not enough manpower in the National Security Ministry to handle the high numbers of gun license requests.

“The ministry tried to provide creative ways of dealing with the demand,” said Limon. “Some of the ways turned out to be illegal and now we are trying to decide the ramifications for those who received these licenses… The decision to provide gun licenses could cost lives, heaven forbid, and making that decision requires real consideration.”

David Weitzman, head of firearms supervision in the National Security Ministry, said during the Knesset meeting that since October 7, a total of 64,000 conditional gun licenses have been issued.

On December 4, Yisrael Avisar, who headed the National Security Ministry’s Firearms Licensing Department, announced he was stepping down from his position.

His announcement came just days after he admitted to a Knesset oversight committee that on his watch a “situation room” manned by individuals close to Ben Gvir had been set up in the ministry to deal with the huge surge in gun license requests. He expressed concerns that cronyism was influencing who was receiving gun licenses.

In a post on Facebook, Ben Gvir, who identifies with some elements of the ideology of the late rabbi Meir Kahane’s extremist Kach party, which was banned by the Knesset from politics in Israel for inciting racism, responded, “My policy regarding providing guns to civilians who meet the criteria is clear and will continue.”

“Someone who fails to carry out the policy and is pressured by attacks of the left in various [Knesset] committees really can’t continue as the head of the firearms division at a time when Israel is at war and there is a need to arm as many civilians who meet ministry criteria as possible,” he said.

Illustrative: A Jewish woman settler practices firing a weapon, September 21, 2011. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Before the handgun regulations were updated, Israel had relatively few legally owned private guns.

According to the Swiss study mentioned above, in 2017 Israel had fewer guns per 100 people than Germany, France, Italy and Ireland and nowhere near the number in the United States, which was found to have 120 guns per 100 people — more than a gun per person.

Not everyone who applies for a gun gets one. Based on National Security Ministry data, about 10% of requests for gun licenses have been rejected.

Double-edged sword

At the Jerusalem Shooting Range on Yanai Street in downtown Jerusalem, nine men and two women file into a soundproofed shooting lane to shoot the required 100 rounds required to receive a gun license.

The conversation naturally turns to the tragic death of Yuval Castleman who, just days before, on November 30, heroically killed two Hamas terrorists less than a minute after they started shooting. They killed three people at a crowded bus stop at the entrance to Jerusalem.

Castleman was then killed by friendly fire from an off-duty IDF soldier.

“The guy [Castleman] raised his hands in the air and shouted at the soldier ‘Don’t shoot, I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew, but that soldier kept shooting,” says one of the men, a powerfully built man in his early thirties. “It’s really important to wear a hat that clearly identifies you.”

Yuval Castleman (courtesy)

A quiet settles over the group, some of whom had never shot a gun in their lives.

The incident involving Castelman illustrates the logic of widespread handgun ownership. It also highlights the potential dangers posed to those who act to stop a terrorist attack.

Shaul, the shooting instructor at the Jerusalem Shooting Range, says owning a gun is a serious commitment that entails ensuring it is stored properly when not on one’s person.

“It’s important for people to know that people are not rushing into buying guns out of fear but rather out of a feeling of responsibility, even though it’s a major headache to own a gun,” he says.

Gun culture

Some human rights organizations are concerned that the rise in the number of privately owned handguns will transform Israeli society for the worse.

“In the hands of hundreds of thousands of new gun bearers who were barely screened or trained, gun culture and civilian spaces inside Israel could change beyond recognition,” reads a prepared statement from Gun Free Kitchen Tables (GFKT), a gun-control coalition of 19 organizations including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Itach Ma’aki – Women Lawyers for Social Justice, and Isha L’Isha among others.

“Threats to women, which are often unspoken displays – on kitchen tables, for instance – reinforce the coercive control exercised over them in violent homes. Even before the current gun craze, between 2021 and 2022, 34 women, or 43% of the total, were murdered in Israel with firearms, including nine who were shot with licensed guns,” says GFKT, which includes an organization of Haredi women concerned about men in their community receiving handguns. Of the 34 women, seven were Jews — all killed with registered guns — and 25 were Arabs.

An instructor demonstrates how to aim a gun for a group of trainees, the Jerusalem Shooting Range, December 3, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)

According to Israel Police data, in 2021-2022 there were 439 homicides, 65% of which were committed with firearms, GFKT says. Israel Police could not provide a breakdown of homicides carried out with registered, as opposed to illegal, arms.

Meanwhile, GFKT, ACRI and Itach Ma’aki called on the National Security Ministry to appoint supervisors who can conduct surprise inspections to ensure gun owners store their weapons in safes as required by law.

In addition, the GFKT called for background checks not just of criminal activity, but also of domestic violence, substance abuse and disability as documented by the Welfare Ministry and the National Insurance Institute that might not be recorded by Israel Police.

.Mass armament must be used as a temporary, reversible measure in exceptional times. When the current peak of violence subsides, authorities must call back and buy back the guns that the state is now handing out, so that this country doesn’t go down the lethal path that the US is traveling,” writes GFKT.

Asked about the danger that domestic violence could rise as a result of more lenient gun licensing laws, Laor says: “If someone wants to kill his sister, he doesn’t need a gun, not a handgun, not a rifle, not a LAU missile launcher, not a MAG machine gun. He can grab a schnitzel tenderizing hammer and exterminate her.”

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz takes aim and fires at a target as part of the process for receiving his gun license at the Jerusalem Shooting Range, December 3, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)

Leibowitz’s hands shake as he shoots off his first 10 rounds at a target 8 meters away at the Jerusalem Shooting Range. But his shots hit the center of the target.

“It’s a complicated decision for me because clearly there are extremist elements behind the change in gun policy,” says Leibowitz. “I am horrified that we have a minister in Israel like Ben Gvir and the decision to change the policy regarding firearms is his decision.

“Many of my congregants are liberal, progressive, young Americans and that’s a stereotype, but I think in terms of the people I know in my community those are the people who I imagine will be most concerned about seeing me get a gun,” he says. “But at the same time, I think it’s warranted to arm yourself.

“There has to be a crackdown on settler violence and extremist elements and we need to get people like Ben Gvir and his ilk out of the government,” says the rabbi. “But the decision to become more flexible and provide more people who meet the criteria with guns is a good one.”

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