In May, when tensions in Israel’s mixed cities erupted with unprecedented force during “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” Tamar, a resident of Gush Etzion in Samaria, felt—like many other Israelis nationwide—that she had been abandoned to her fate. Faced with the images of rage and destruction in Lod, Jaffa and elsewhere, she came to the conclusion that if the state would not defend her, she would defend herself. The next stop was to apply for a firearm license.

“During the riots, I felt like I couldn’t rely on anyone. I felt I had to defend myself because they [law enforcement] clearly weren’t going to do it,” said Tamar.

Unlike the United States, Israel does not offer its citizens any “right to bear arms” within its framework of basic laws. In fact—and contrary to common misconception—the Jewish state has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world. Also unlike in the United States, where guns are readily available for purchase, even Israelis who have completed their military service cannot apply for a license before the age of 20. Those who did not serve in the military, for whatever reason, have to wait until they’re 27 to seek a license.

All applicants are required to provide proof of compliance with a long list of requirements, and once a license is granted the type of firearm and number of bullets one can purchase is limited. Each type of firearm requires a separate license, and automatic rifles are off-limits—the most a civilian can apply for is a pistol.

According to the Firearms Licensing Department at the Public Security Ministry, the most sought-after weapon in Israel is a 9mm handgun. This type of weapon costs anywhere from 300 shekels ($90) second-hand, to NIS 20,000 ($6,245) for unique models. In Israel, the average handgun costs NIS 4,000 ($1,250). These costs are compounded by a host of other fees, ranging from a few tens to a few hundreds of shekels a year for licensing fees, mandatory periodic firearms training, and ammunition.

Tamar, 49, works in high-tech and is a mother of three.

“I’m not used to carrying a weapon and to be honest, the whole thing makes me uncomfortable,” she said. “But at the end of the day, this is my life we’re talking about. In my community, we say that it’s better to shoot an attacker and save your life and deal with any legal issues later than to be the one laid to rest,” she added.

And Tamar is not alone; May’s events sparked a true crisis of confidence between the Jewish and Arab residents of many communities.

An Efrat resident learning how to use an automatic rifle at a firing range in Gush Etzion, April 29, 2010. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.

According to data from Israel’s Public Security Ministry, which enforces gun-control regulations,  since “Operation Guardian of the Walls” was launched on May 11, some 10,580 applications for a personal firearms license have been filed—six times the number of applications for the same period last year. According to the ministry’s data, the uptick in applications is nationwide.

Zur Ra’anan

Lod resident Zur Ra’anan, who is currently going for his master’s degree in physics, also applied for a gun permit, saying he “simply didn’t feel safe” during the riots in the city. Ra’anan moved to the central Israeli city in 2015 as part of a garin torani—a group of religious Zionist families who settle in communities with low religious populations, seeking to strengthen the community’s connection to Judaism and promote integration.

“When I moved, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to carry a weapon. A lot of people asked me if I planned to get a [gun] license but I explained that if I move to a mixed city carrying a gun, it would be making a statement. It would tell my neighbors I had no faith in them, and I didn’t want that. I also didn’t think I needed a weapon. I believed that the police would protect me if we had any trouble and really, until the week of the riots we had no issues that were nationalistic,” he stressed.

“During the week of riots, I saw with my own eyes that the same police I relied on, and into whose hands I entrusted my security and the security of my family, didn’t show up. We were very surprised by the intensity of the riots, the fierce nationalist hatred and the criminal behavior. We saw the vacuum left by the police. It was very dangerous,” he said.

An Israeli policeman fends off an angry Arab mob swarming an Israeli motorist, pelting his car with stones and driving him off the road, outside Jerusalem’s Old City, May 10, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Q: Did you experience violence firsthand?

A: We were practically under siege. Hundreds of Arabs were on the street, shouting and throwing stones. Leaving the house was suicide. Our house was hit by a firebomb. The window was closed, so it only hit the shutters. We didn’t even dare go out to the stairwell during the [rocket] sirens. We preferred to risk being hit by a missile than risk leaving the house and facing the rioters. There were Jews in the neighborhood who went out to the [bomb] shelter and were attacked in the stairwell.

Israeli police on the streets of Lod during a riot by the city’s Arab residents. May 12, 2021. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

Q: Didn’t you call the police?

A: We did. When they finally came, the firmest action they took was to throw a few stun grenades. It’s a miracle nothing happened to us—but we can’t count on miracles to last. [During the riots] we all felt helpless and unprotected. Like all our Jewish neighbors, we too saw the madness, and we were afraid. I slept with a hammer by the bed, in case anyone tried to break down the door. Not the most effective thing, but that’s what I had to work with.

Even in the weeks after the riots, we didn’t feel any significant police presence in the neighborhood. We expected them to draw conclusions and launch an extensive operation that would include arrests, enforcement and confiscation of weapons, but what they did was very minor. All these things made me realize that it has to be my responsibility to protect my family; that in a situation of mortal danger I must have a way to defend myself. That’s why I want a gun.

It makes you nervous to have a gun in the house but we feel we have no other choice. I know several other people who are currently also in the process of obtaining a gun license.

Vandalized cars in Lod, following a night of heavy rioting by Arab residents in the city, on May 12, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Miriam Lamkus

Miriam Lamkus, 23, a nursing student from Tekoa, south of Jerusalem, also recently applied for a gun license.

“I drive alone on the roads of Judea and Samaria, and at any given moment a Palestinian [driver] can give me the finger, bypass my car with alarming speed then slam on the brakes, placing me in danger. There is no cellular reception in some areas, so my fate is in my hands. After what happened in the May riots, I understood the need for self-defense,” she said.

Lamkus is no stranger to terror attacks and the importance of carrying weapons to prevent them. In November 2014, she lost her sister, Dalia, in an attack at the Gush Etzion Junction. An Israeli passerby fired on the terrorist, but his weapon jammed. He fought the assailant with his bare hands, sustaining 11 stab wounds in the process. A security guard that rushed to the scene eventually killed the terrorist.

“Immediately after the attack, I wanted to get a gun license, but it took me a long time to come to terms with it. What I saw in ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls’ spurred me to take action,” she said.

Israeli security forces near the scene of an attempted stabbing at the Gush Etzion Junction south of Bethlehem on May 2, 2021. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90.

Israel Hellman

Israel Hellman, 22, a Krav Maga instructor from the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Ze’ev, also recently applied for a gun permit.

“My need to get a gun comes from the reality in which we live. This is a country with a lot of enemies, who are constantly trying to kill us. I’m sure that when they see a weapon it will deter them,” he said.

Q: Why do you, as a martial arts expert, need a weapon?

A: I can handle a one-on-one physical confrontation with a terrorist, but if there is a gunfight, I’ll need a weapon. I want to protect myself and those around me. I will do everything in my power to avoid a situation where I have to shoot, but if there is no other choice than to prevent an attack using a weapon—I won’t hesitate.

Q: Do you think it’s a good idea for our streets to be flooded with guns?

A: No, it’s certainly not, but if you live in dangerous areas, and have no criminal record or history of mental illness, you should be able to defend yourself and your surroundings. That, in and of itself, will prevent terrorist attacks.

Jewish security personnel from Beitar Illit train at a firing range in Gush Etzion. August 26, 2009. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.

Tamar

The initial stage of applying for a firearms license includes filling out an online form and producing proof of competence, such as a health statement signed by a doctor, a certificate of military or national service or an exemption from it, and proof of residency in an area where a license can be issued. Once all that is cleared, applicants must undergo an interview with a Firearms Licensing Department official.

Gush Etzion resident Tamar’s interview is scheduled for this month.

Q: Whenever tensions flare up people feel they need weapons, but for the most part, they cool down and relinquish the idea.

A: That’s true, when a tense security situation calms down a bit, people forget it and resume their routine. But I think this time it’s different. It is clear to me that there will be another wave of riots, and that next time, it will be more serious. The previous governments completely neglected the issue of Arab Israelis and unless they [the current government] make the [mental] switch and understand where this is going, no one will be safe. The next flare-up can’t be far away. That is why I want to be prepared.

Changing the law

Israel’s 1949 Firearm Law sets rigid eligibility criteria for gun permits for civilians. Of these, the most controversial is the one stating that applicants must reside in an “eligible locality.” The list of “eligible localities” includes mostly communities in Judea and Samaria, border-adjacent communities and certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem, such as Ramot, Givat Ze’ev and French Hill.

Six years ago, during a wave of so-called lone-wolf terror attacks, then-Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan expanded the criteria for issuing permits.

“Over the past few weeks, many civilians assisted the Israel Police in neutralizing terrorists carrying out attacks. Civilians who are trained in the use of firearms are a force multiplier in the war on terror, which is why I acted to ease [criteria] during this period,” said Erdan.

Israeli Security Minister Gilad Erdan gives a statement to the press at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on Feb. 6, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Erdan set the new criteria in place in 2018, but industry officials claim that current Public Security Minister Omer Barlev seeks to again impose a stricter gun control law, thus cutting the number of weapons in civilian hands.

Barlev’s office denied the claim, saying in a statement that “seeking to address the issue [of gun permits], the minister’s position is to follow the recommendations of the attorney general on the matter, and set the criteria via legislation in the Knesset. After taking office in June, Minister Barlev ordered a professional audit of the issue, and will not make a decision prior to conducting a full review of the matter. Restoring the public’s confidence and sense of personal security are two objectives Minister Barlev plans to pursue.”

According to one firearms instructor, who preferred to remain unnamed, “There is currently no encouragement on the part of the state for civilians to carry weapons—on the contrary, and despite the fact that it has been proven that civilians who carry weapons legally can prevent terrorist attacks or diminish their gravity. Today, the public security minister is trying to reduce this possibility.”

Q: The concern is that Israel will be flooded with firearms, some of which will not contribute to public security—perhaps the opposite.

A: As a firearms instructor, I can say that all the stories we are aware of involving licensed weapons used in so-called “honor killings” were organizational weapons, not private ones. Security forces cannot be everywhere all the time, and this is where armed civilians come in. They are a critical element in dealing with it [threats]. Armed civilians can certainly prevent or stop terrorist attacks. Sometimes an attack is prevented only because an armed civilian is present.

Training

Yair Melamed, 42, is a firearms instructor in Jerusalem. He lives in the southern Mount Hebron area and has been in the field for eight years.

“As far as I know, the number of applications submitted in the last three months is the same as the number of applications submitted in the last two-and-a-half years,” he said.

Entering the firing range where he works is like going through a portal into a different universe.

“Using a gun isn’t like any other thing you do on a daily basis. It takes practice. You have to be skilled when you use a weapon,” he said.

A firearms instructor trains a group how to respond if their cars are stoned, at a shooting range in Gush Etzion. November 30, 2014. Photo by Gershon Elinson/Flash90.

Initial training includes a 4.5-hour workshop where applicants learn about gun laws, carrying regulations and restrictions, gun safety, rules of engagement and threat scenarios, as well as how to properly store, maintain and carry their weapons.

Actually firing weapons is the very last step in training. Each participant fires 80 bullets, in three firing positions: standing, kneeling and prone. Training also includes learning how to fire from cover and reloading under fire.

The workshop is followed by both a written and a practical test, including a firing-range session in which each shot grouping is inspected. Applicants must complete all three successfully.

Gun owners are also required to undergo a mandatory refresher course every two years.

Illustrative image. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Firearms instructor Talia Adar says that safety regulations have become stricter over the past few years. Weapons must now be kept in a strong box together with the ammunition and the license itself, and armed civilians may only fire in situations of clear and present danger.

“Every spent bullet must be accounted for, even in cases of unintentional discharge,” she stressed. “Every time a gun is fired you have to report it to the police immediately, even if there are no casualties. And there is a chance that an unintentional discharge will cost you your license,” she warned.

She further explained that under the law, firing on an assailant is the absolute last resort.

“It is permissible to fire at an assailant only when he has the means, intent and capability [to carry out an attack] … and only when there is no other way to stop him,” she said.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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