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Private Gun Ownership in Israel Spikes After Hamas Attacks

Two weeks ago, Zvika Arran reluctantly drew a gun at an Israeli state-run shooting class for those seeking firearms licenses, part of a massive spike in applications since the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7.

Mr. Arran said he was repelled by the idea of owning the pistol that now sits in a safe in his house. But his sense of security, like that of so many Israelis, was shattered when Hamas fighters overran communities near the Gaza Strip, killing an estimated 1,200 people and abducting more than 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

“God forbid, if something similar happens here, I want to know that I have a firearm,” said Mr. Arran, 48, who lives in Eliav, a small town that borders the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “The problem is the side effects” of proliferating guns, he added, which he called “a disaster for years to come.”

“It shows that the state has simply given up on protecting us,” he added. “And it will be a disaster in encouraging violence on the roads, domestic violence and gunfire accidents.”

In Israel, a nation of 9 million people, roughly 150,000 held private gun licenses in 2021, a figure that had dropped by about 20 percent over the previous decade, according to the National Security Ministry. The overwhelming majority of such licenses are for handguns.

But in the aftermath of Oct. 7, Israelis have submitted at least 256,000 applications for gun licenses, including many who had never before considered owning a weapon. Israel’s current far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has long pushed for an expansion of gun ownership, and in mid-October, lawmakers signed off on eased gun ownership regulations promulgated by his office.

Young adults with assault rifles slung over their shoulders are a common sight in Israel, where hundreds of thousands are soldiers on active duty or reservists with weapons stashed at home. But despite decades of insecurity, private gun ownership never approached the levels seen in the United States, where surveys show about one-third of adults own firearms.

“Until Oct. 7, the private weapons policy in Israel was fairly well-balanced,” said Tomer Lotan, a former director-general of the National Security Ministry. “Then, the authentic fears of many Israelis changed in a single day.”

The Israeli government issued 13,000 firearms licenses in all of 2022, and 23,000 this year through Oct. 7. But after the Hamas assault, by late November, 26,000 new licenses had been fully approved in less than eight weeks, while another 44,000 Israelis had received “conditional approval.”

Eligibility for a gun license depends on a person’s age, military or national service experience, profession and place of residence — some towns are deemed more dangerous than others, justifying ownership. The new regulations expand the number of qualifying towns, reduce the required amount of national service and allow more volunteer medics and first responders to bear arms.

Yisrael Avisar, who had run Israel’s gun licensing department since 2020, said that plans for new regulations were drawn up in January, soon after the government took office, and were not the result of the war.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s ministry has pushed to expand civilian “emergency response” patrols in local communities. It has also distributed assault rifles to civilian security teams in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“Israel is arming itself,” declared a ministry announcement that aired for weeks on Israeli radio after the attack.

“As many citizens as possible who met the criteria must be armed,” Mr. Gvir wrote recently on social media. Last week, he told a meeting of his Jewish Power party, “If there had been more guns in the Gaza border area, more emergency response teams, more lives could have been saved.”

The approach has prompted fierce criticism inside Israel from policy experts and some lawmakers, who fear loosened regulations and proliferating weapons will drive an increase in homicides, suicides, domestic violence and even private gangs operating as militias.

“Israel won’t become the United States,” said Mr. Lotan. “But we will pay a big price, as a society, for this proliferation of private weaponry: more gunfire accidents, more suicides, more kids playing with guns, more daily conflicts escalating to drawn guns.”

Before the war began, interviews to obtain firearms licenses were conducted in person, according to Mr. Lotan, and lasted around 20 minutes. Between 20 and 30 percent of applicants were rejected following the interviews, which were intended to weed out those unfit to bear arms, he said.

Mr. Arran, however, described a far more slapdash process — a “20 second” phone call rather than an extended conversation. A day after finishing his four-hour shooting course, he received his gun license by email.

“They called me, but it wasn’t really even an interview,” he said. “If only the rest of our country’s public services were so efficient,” he added sarcastically.

Another resident of Eliav, Maayan Rosenberg-Schatz, said that like so many other Israelis, she no longer believed the Israeli military — which took hours to arrive at some embattled communities on Oct. 7 — would reach them in time in a crisis.

Two days after the attacks, she sat down with two of her young children to plan how to escape should Palestinian attackers invade their home.

“We talked about trying to flee to the roof, maybe escaping from there,” said Ms. Rosenberg-Schatz, 42, who applied for a gun license along with her husband. “But in the end, there’s no replacement for having a weapon.”

Ms. Rosenberg-Schatz, who described herself as politically center-left, said she was concerned that proliferating guns might fall into the wrong hands.

“Everyone tells you they’re worried about that — but they still feel unsafe” without a gun, she added. “Suddenly, we feel this fear deep down in our guts, and it’s really difficult to argue with that.”

Palestinians in the West Bank say they fear more weapons in the hands of hard-line Israeli settlers, who are already more heavily armed than most Israelis, at a time when settler violence against Arabs has jumped.

Similar fears prevail inside Israel. In Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish city, residents fear an even more extreme version of the deadly interethnic violence that shook the city in 2021, said Fida Shehada, a Palestinian city councilor.

“We’re entering a situation in which anyone could raise their weapons at you,” Ms. Shehada said.

Itamar Avneri, a leader of Standing Together, an organization that advances Jewish-Arab coexistence, said he had already noticed more weapons as he walked around his home city of Tel Aviv.

“I understand the reaction, I really do, I really want to feel safe too,” Mr. Avneri said. “But I see people walking with guns and rifles, and this is not what security and safety looks like.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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