In a span of less than a week, deadly shooting sprees at the hands of gunmen associated with terror movements rocked Orlando and Tel Aviv. In America, the deadliest mass-murder attack since Sept. 11, 2001, has strengthened calls for stricter gun control laws. Yet in Israel, where many civilians carry firearms, questions on how the terrorists acquired their weapons did not spark national debate.
“Israelis relate to guns totally differently than Americans,” said Marc Provisor, director of security projects for One Israel Fund, an organization that provides security equipment to Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
A majority of terrorists who have attacked Israelis in recent months have been neutralized by armed Israelis, including police officers, off-duty soldiers and even civilians.
“People here have guns out of a grim necessity. It’s not a hobby,” Provisor said.
In the United States, the right to bear arms is a now-challenged Constitutional fixture, and many Americans possess more than one weapon. Israel does not have an official constitution, yet the country’s set of Basic Laws does not protect the ability of any individual to have access to firearms. Many Israelis carry firearms, yet there are strict controls on who is allowed to possess a weapon, and citizens who carry them are required to go through gun training. Israeli civilians are typically restricted to a single handgun and limited numbers of bullets.
According to Provisor, there are certain criteria that an Israeli civilian must meet before being permitted to own a handgun.
“There is a medical review, there is a psychological review, and Israeli police and security services check you out before you are approved for a handgun. It’s not that easy. … In Israel, a gun is not looked at as a privilege, but rather as a responsibility,” he said.
Avi Dobular, master shooting instructor at the Magnum 88 Range in Jerusalem, argued that the motivations are different when it comes to Israeli and American citizens wanting to own guns for self-defense.
“Here [in Israel] we’re not talking about somebody wanting to break into your house and steal your jewelry. Here it is an existential threat to your life,” he said. “Armed citizens increase the overall security of the nation and its people. There cannot be a policeman or an armed soldier on every block. So an armed citizenry is very important.”
Self-perceived cultural differences between Israel and America may contribute to the fact that unprovoked usage of firearms by civilians is a rare occurrence in Israel.
“Random gun violence is low here because people are more serious,” said Dobular. “Israelis grow up in a gun culture. They see people carrying guns from a young age. They serve in the army, where they are taught discipline and responsibility. Plus, people live a relatively happy life here. And here there is no concept of people taking out their problems on others with weapons.”
Palestinians, meanwhile, with the exception of local police forces in the West Bank, are generally not permitted to carry firearms. Yet growing numbers of Palestinians have been getting their hands on weapons and using them in deadly terror offensives.
Over the past several years, there has been a rising number of Palestinian terrorist shooting attacks against Jews driving on roads, and in crowded areas like shopping centers. During the months-long wave of terror that started last fall, in addition to homemade guns and bombs, Palestinian terrorists have utilized their cars and even kitchen knives as weapons. The terror wave has indicated that Palestinian attackers intent on harming civilians will use whatever weapons they can get their hands on — even improvised weapons.
Despite calls by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for any future Palestinian state to be completely demilitarized, Palestinians have “a ton of weapons,” Provisor said. “Israel has been instrumental in arming Palestinian police forces. Palestinian police were originally armed by Israel as part of the Oslo agreement. We first began to see these weapons turned on Jews during the second intifada.”
As a result of the persistent threat of terror, Israel has been easing gun controls to enable and even encourage Jews living in areas near large Palestinian communities to acquire firearms.
In October 2015, amid the renewed surge of Palestinian attacks, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat openly encouraged Israelis with handguns to carry them. He told Israel’s Army Radio, “I think that carrying a licensed pistol and knowing what to do with it is imperative.
“We can see that statistically, the neutralization of terrorists was often done by capable people who weren’t necessarily policemen,” said Barkat.
Dobular believes Israelis need to be “always vigilant and prepared.” During a terror attack of any nature, “a gun is an equalizer,” he said.
Israeli authorities are not concerned that civilians carrying weapons will turn them on their fellow citizens. Israeli civilians are not permitted access to multiple weapons or assault rifles.
“If we didn’t have to, most Israelis would not want to own a handgun,” Provisor said.
While Orlando shooter Omar Mateen used an assault rifle for his mass murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub, Israeli civilians are not permitted access to multiple weapons or assault rifles.
“People here think, ‘Why would anybody want to have like five assault rifles?’” Provisor said. “Most Israeli would think that walking into a Walmart and buying an assault rifle is a little bit crazy.”