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Israel is trying to arm more citizens with guns since the Hamas attack

Israeli men, armed with U.S.-made M16 automatic assault rifles, walk in a shopping center in Jerusalem on Oct. 25, amid the ongoing battles in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.
Yuri Cortez
/
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli men, armed with U.S.-made M16 automatic assault rifles, walk in a shopping center in Jerusalem on Oct. 25, amid the ongoing battles in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.

TEL AVIV, Israel — With an assault rifle slung over his right shoulder, Amitai Turkel strolls along Jaffa's cafe-lined waterfront holding hands with his wife, Oriya. The young couple attracts no notice from passersby who are also enjoying a midday walk in the warm Mediterranean breeze.

"I feel more safe. I feel more comfortable and calm," Oriya says when asked about her husband's military-issue Tavor and its loaded magazine.

Amitai Turkel, 24, is one of hundreds of thousands of reservists, or miluimnikim, Israel activated in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants that shook this nation of 9 million to its core.

"Seeing soldiers in the street is nothing new. It's part of Israel," says Turkel, who is originally from a West Bank settlement but now studies computer science in Jerusalem.

"Usually if you see someone with a gun, you know he is military or security or something like that," he says.

That could soon be changing. In the aftermath of the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel, the Israeli government has moved to loosen the rules around gun ownership, fast-tracking the permitting process and speeding up approvals.

This week, the national security minister said the ministry has received more than 260,000 new firearm permit requests since Oct. 7 and is approving up to 3,000 of them per day, compared with 100 approvals a day before the attack.

Compared with the U.S., Israel has relatively restrictive firearm laws. It also has a mandatory national military service requirement for citizens over age 18, and with few exceptions, guns are restricted to Israelis with weapons training or in security professions. Untrained civilians, including the vast majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are exempt from military service, don't qualify.

Israelis have "a defense mentality rather than an offense mentality" when it comes to guns, says Jonah Mink, 38, a physician who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., but moved to Israel five years ago and became an Israeli citizen. In Israel, he says, "there's actually something real and immediate to defend against and not just an abstract notion of defense from bad guys."

Today, that real and immediate threat is Hamas, which carried out the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people. Israel's newspapers and airwaves have been saturated with stories of brave kibbutz members grabbing rifles to defend themselves as Hamas militants stormed through their communities, which has fueled the drive for freer access to firearms.

Mink, who lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and two children, says he himself wanted to buy a Glock pistol "for personal protection" after the attack. "My wife has always said we're never going to have a gun in the house," he says. "But now we're saying well maybe we should ... because who the hell knows what's gonna happen in the world."

Without having served in the Israeli military, however, Mink doesn't qualify.

Nonetheless, he has been kept busy processing the medical paperwork required for his patients to get guns. Before the Hamas attack two months ago, he'd been filling out two or three of those certifications a month, but in recent weeks, it has jumped to three or four a week, he says.

But the government's effort to ease gun restrictions has not come without controversy.

In the days after the Hamas attack, the office of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician once convicted of inciting anti-Arab racism, purchased 10,000 rifles to arm civilian security militias in Israeli border towns, West Bank settlements and cities with a mix of Jewish and Arab populations. However, after an Israeli newspaper reported that the ministry was using unqualified personnel to approve the permits, Ben-Gvir's deputy in charge of firearms licensing resigned.

Noa Sattath, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, says the government's drive for more guns has skirted the definition of what's legal. "Laws were not passed through the regular procedure of legislation but are fast-tracked as emergency regulations," she says. "So there's less oversight on them."

Last week in a deadly shooting by Hamas militants at a bus stop just outside Jerusalem, three people were killed by the assailants. A fourth man, Yuval Doron Castleman, was also killed when he exited a vehicle with his licensed firearm to help engage the gunmen. Apparently mistaken for one of the attackers, he was killed by soldiers.

At a news conference after the shooting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his government's push to relax weapons licenses. "As soon as you distribute more weapons, things can happen," he said. "Such is life." The prime minister's remarks were seen as cavalier by some Israelis and immediately drew criticism.

Unlike the United States, which has among the highest per capita gun homicide ratesin the world, Israel's rate is much lower.

More guns on Israel's streets is a prospect that unnerves many. That's especially true with the charge being led by Ben-Gvir, who has proposed a national guard directly under his control, which some, including Israel's defense minister, view as essentially a private militia.

According to Sattath, Ben-Gvir wants a force "that would be obedient to him and not follow the police procedure of professional conduct ... in order to both abuse the population and continue the animosity and tension between the communities."

Amir Badran is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and far-left candidate running for mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. He recounts a wave of mob violence in 2021 that swept through cities where Israeli Jews and Palestinians live side by side. He blames right-wing vigilantes and says these are the same people whom the government wants to arm.

"This is something that we fear as Arabs," Badran says.

"These guns soon will be turned upon us," he says. "Us means me as an Arab, you as a Jew and us as a community."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.