On many occasions in the Israel Defense Forces’ ongoing battle against illegal guns in the West Bank, security forces seize such weapons before the terrorists can even arm themselves with them. But not always.

Three days after a Palestinian gunman opened fire on Israelis standing at a bus station at Givat Asaf, murdering two Israeli soldiers and leaving a third in critical condition, security forces recovered the firearm used in that terror attack on Dec. 16. In addition to the hidden AK-47 found by Shin Bet intelligence officers and the IDF was a gun stolen from one of the soldiers injured in the shooting.

The AK-47 rifle used in the deadly bus station shooting at Givat Asaf, recovered on Dec. 16, 2018, by the IDF and the Shin Bet. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

On Dec. 9, Israelis standing at a bus stop at Ofra Junction, near Givat Asaf, were targeted by a Palestinian gunman in a drive-by shooting, resulting in the death of a pregnant woman’s premature baby, along with seven other civilian injuries. Three days later, the elite Counter-Terrorist Unit launched a raid on a suspected Hamas cell, killing one member who tried to run them over and arresting others, though it is believed that some of the cell’s members remain on the loose, and that one of them may have been behind the subsequent deadly second bus-stop shooting.

In most terrorist shootings, the terrorists are armed with locally produced automatic firearms, dubbed “Carlos” since they are roughly designed as replicates of the Carl Gustav Swedish sub-machine gun.

But the recent attacks involved standard industrial firearms, which are not prone to jams and are far more accurate, resulting in significantly worse casualties when they fall into the wrong hands.

Sometimes, a car stop-and-search can reveal concealed deadly weapons, like the one conducted by IDF soldiers in Hebron in recent days, which turned up an M16 assault rifle and an Uzi sub-machine gun.

An M-16 rife and Uzi sub-machine gun seized during a car search in Hebron on Dec. 14, 2018. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

But most of the hard work that goes into disrupting the West Bank gun industry takes the form of nightly raids, targeting workshops that contain lathes—machines that shape metal and are used by illicit gun-makers to produce firearms.

A military source from the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division told JNS about such efforts, aimed, he said, at eventually “draining the swamp.”

“We in the division deal a lot with preventative campaigns,” the officer said, explaining that the war on terrorism is based on three pillars: disrupting the gun market, seizing terrorist financing and arresting terror suspects—“people who we want out of the territory.”

Hamas ‘the central vector’ for West Bank terrorism

While firearms have not vanished in the West Bank, the source argued that the IDF’s long-term preventative efforts have paid off, as indicated by the drastic price increase of the guns, suggesting that the “products” are becoming rarer, in line with supply-and-demand pricing trends. A Carlo, for example, cost between 4,500 to 6,000 shekels in 2016, whereas today, it sells for between 6,000 to 10,000 shekels.

A standard, industrially produced M-16 with a shortened barrel cost between 40,000 and 60,000 shekels in 2016. Today, such guns go for between 45,000 to 80,000 shekels on the illegal West Bank market.

“Every night, the division’s brigades conduct offensive attacks to prevent the production of these guns. Many of these operations are driven by intelligence, based on existing intelligence leads,” said the source.

“There are also operations based on wider searches—not necessarily based on precise intelligence, but they cause good intelligence leads to surface,” he stated. “Usually, the weapons producers are also arrested. And this is how, slowly, we try to drain this swamp.”

The source made it clear that the workshops are a far cry from large factories and are instead typically found in back-storage facilities or rooms in homes, with replacement parts scattered around the premises.

“This is where the weapons are manufactured or converted for carrying out terror attacks,” he said.

Representatives from the Judea and Samaria Division arrive at shooting scenes with Israel police to investigate, gather forensic evidence and compare to past incidents to look for a linkage.

The source said that recent hours have seen a decrease in incidents, following a spike of severe attacks. “We have captured two terrorists—one behind the [Oct. 7] Barkan attack [that killed two Israeli civilians] and the Ofra terrorist. We are not stopping for a minute. We are pursuing the terrorist behind the Givat Asaf attack. We are pushing ahead with all of our forces,” he said.

An image from an IDF raid on a gun workshop in the West Bank town of Yata on Aug. 14, 2018. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

Aside from the guns, the source said that most terrorist financing originated from the Hamas network, describing Hamas as “the central vector” for West Bank terrorism. He added that the industrial firearms not locally produced are smuggled into the West Bank from Jordan and Israel or stolen from a variety of locations.

Lessons for the future

In recent days, Brig.-Gen. Eran Niv, commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, shed light on how the IDF divides its time between offense and defense in the area.

“We prevent terrorism in Judea and Samaria every night,” he said, referring to offensive, preventative operations. “The forces in the sector conduct activities every day, making arrests, capturing weapons and seizing terror funds. Through prevention, we fight terrorism. The strong defense in Judea and Samaria is to stop the terrorism that has managed to get through [the IDF’s preventative actions], and therefore, the soldiers are required to be strong, sharp and precise against the enemies.”

“Last week, there were a number of severe attacks,” acknowledged Niv. “We will investigate them and draw lessons for the future.