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An Israeli at a gun range. Photo by Mor Amar/TPS.
An Israeli at a gun range. Photo by Mor Amar/TPS.
featureIsrael at War

Israelis undergo sea change on need for personal firearms

While Israel has a citizens' army, it does not have an armed citizenry. Only about 150,000 Israelis, or 2% of the population, are legal gun owners.

The Hamas rampage against unarmed civilians revealed to Israelis just how exposed they are to attack once the country’s first line of defense is breached. It has awakened a once indifferent public to the need to take up arms.

Demand has been such that a Knesset command center was set up to handle the flood of applications last Tuesday.

“There are now over 120,000 requests for the Firearms Division. Please be patient and the division representatives will get back to everyone,” Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeted last week.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a national address on Wednesday, “We’re encouraging citizens, and helping citizens, to arm themselves with personal weapons for defense.”

On Oct. 16, the National Security Committee approved regulations expanding the criteria for obtaining a gun license. Previously, the two main criteria were IDF service and “place of residence” (whether a citizen lives in what is considered a dangerous area). Both criteria, along with lesser ones affecting fewer people, have been redefined to allow more citizens to qualify.

Since becoming National Security Minister in Dec. 2022, Ben-Gvir has pushed to put more guns into the hands of average citizens. It had been an uphill battle due to public inertia. While Israel is no stranger to terrorism, calls for more guns have failed to garner widespread public support.

The scale and savagery of Hamas’s attack changed that.

“Before this disaster, people in Israel didn’t really understand why they needed personal weapons,” said Raz Blizovsky, who founded The Project for Civil Security, a pro-gun group, in the wake of the Hamas attack.

“Now, after what happened in the Gaza Strip, people understand,” he told JNS.

While Israel has a citizens’ army, it does not have an armed citizenry. Only about 150,000 Israelis, or 2% of the population, are legal gun owners, compared to 30% in the United States. And unlike in America, where gun ownership is linked to individual freedom, there’s nothing like a gun culture.

Gun owners who don’t have a clear reason for owning a firearm are viewed askance. There are virtually no hunters. Sport shooting exists, but enthusiasts are largely citizens of former Soviet states. As a Russian Knesset hopeful once explained to a pro-gun group, “We Russians understand what it means when citizens don’t have guns.”

In place of a Second Amendment, Israel has the aforementioned criteria, of which there are about two dozen. A citizen must meet at least one to qualify for a permit. Moreover, criteria have in the past been canceled at the whim of the public security minister. In one case, 5,000 people lost their license in one go. They could no longer own the guns they had legally purchased.

Blizovsky, a father of five, owns a consulting firm that helps companies run social media campaigns. He decided to do what he does best—run a campaign—only this time to get guns in the hands of citizens.

Once he understood a change had taken place, he realized decision-makers needed to see that change. He started a petition for personal firearms. Over 11,000 signed on in less than three weeks.

“I made sure that as many people as possible would join and express an opinion on social networks. I recruited lots of people, to whom I explained that you should say what you think because the way to get what you want is simply to say it, and in as many places as possible,” said Blizovsky.

Blizovsky applied for a license more than a year ago. Although he never served in the Israeli military, as a resident of Katzrin in the Golan Heights, he qualifies under the “place of residence” criterion. He is still waiting for his license. The bureaucracy is secretive. He can’t say where exactly he is in the process, other than “midway.” There are no notifications or updates.  

The burdensome bureaucracy prevents people from trying for a license in the first place. Another resident of Katzrin, Josh Plank, a father of eight, admits he hasn’t bothered because he found the process daunting. A relatively new immigrant from the United States, Plank has been familiar with firearms since childhood. When he lived in Phoenix, he once held a home invader at gunpoint for nearly an hour until police arrived.

“I cornered him in the laundry room just inches from my baby daughter’s crib,” he said. “Whatever he had planned, he gave it up pretty quickly, accepted the situation, and asked if he could at least have a smoke. The answer was no.”

“I originally hail from Indiana. Having a gun wasn’t a big deal. Trying to get one here is a nightmare. Whoever heard of going through such hoops for a peashooter,” said Plank, who in the States preferred a .45 Colt revolver to the more popular 9 millimeter semi-automatics.

“The system’s designed to keep you from protecting your family, not to mention your neighborhood. It’s the very opposite of the American attitude. Here, they force you to rely on the government. And the fact is it can’t always be relied upon. Just look at what happened down by Gaza,” he said.

Despite his criticism, Plank says he would never consider returning to the United States. “We may be surrounded by heavily armed savages who would love to massacre every one of us, but the people of Israel have a God. I guess I like those odds,” he said.

Plank said that both he and his wife had now applied for a gun license.(Ben-Gvir is encouraging women to apply as well.) “We hope it’ll be easier, that there’s been a change in the mindset after what happened,” said Plank.

According to Blizovsky, the difference in attitudes on firearms between Israel and the United States is a philosophical question. He also cited the media as a factor. In Israel, the press will never say in response to an attack, “If only the citizen had a gun,” he said. Instead, they will say, “If only the police got there sooner.”

However, Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack may have changed minds in the media, too. A report about one heroic defender that aired on Israel’s public broadcasting network was a sharp break from what came before. It focused on one man, a member of an elite police unit, who managed to fend off Hamas terrorists armed with automatic machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades with nothing but a Glock handgun, (He estimated that he killed 10 to 14). He saved himself, his wife and child.

Prominently displayed in the foreground during the interview was his pistol. The pro-gun message, so unusual for a mainstream Israeli station, was impossible to miss—that even a small firearm can be the difference between life and death, even against seemingly impossible odds.

According to Blizovsky, who decided to get a gun after the May 2021 Israeli Arab riots, the absurdities of Israel’s current system extend beyond bureaucracy. He noted that while Katzrin is an “eligible residence,” Sderot, which borders the Gaza Strip and where dozens were killed on Oct. 7, was not. (Ben-Gvir has since added Sderot, along with Ofakim and Netivot, two communities also badly hit in the attack.)

Blizovsky also said that many Israeli communities are calling for the formation of new “standby squads.” (Netanyahu said 600 such squads have already been established, with more on the way.) Standby squads are made up of local residents, usually former military, who train together and are qualified to use automatic rifles. They serve as first-response defense teams, holding down the fort until regular troops arrive. At least two kibbutzim in southern Israel were saved on Oct. 7 because of such squads.

However, these teams are typically made up of people who are the first to head for the front in case of emergency, leaving their communities undefended. For example, the head of the Yesha Council sent an urgent letter to the prime minister on Oct. 25 demanding security be restored after the “mobilization of members of the standby squads by ‘Order 8’ [the emergency Israel Defense Forces call-up notice] and the lack of combat equipment.”

“You need as many people as possible. There will always be a reason why this or that person isn’t available. Decentralization is the name of the game. That’s what will win,” said Blizovsky.

Blizovsky’s group advocates attaching new gun owners to the volunteer police force. Israel’s police already use volunteers extensively so the system is in place, he said. Blizovsky’s innovation is that new volunteers won’t be required to commit to a certain number of hours or days as is the case now. To do so would only discourage people from participating, he said. But under his scheme, new gun owners will be trained and become familiar with the police system so they can be called on in case of emergency. He is convinced citizens will respond in times of crisis.

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