The gun that killed Hadar Cohen was not carried into the Palestinian territories through tunnels or smuggled past guards at a checkpoint. It was an improvised firearm, probably home made in a basement or kitchen somewhere in the West Bank.
The 19-year old rookie Border Policewoman was killed and a colleague wounded in a combined stabbing and shooting attack at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate at the beginning of the month. The three attackers, Palestinians in their early 20s from the northern communities in the West Bank, had been approached and questioned because they were acting suspiciously, prompting their deadly reply.
Neither of the guns used in the attack – described as Carl Gustav submachine guns – were the ubiquitous Kalashnikov assault rifles favored by the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah.
“We’re not talking about military grade, manufactured weapons. These are weapons that are being produced in homemade factories,” Micky Rosenfeld, spokesman for Israeli police told The Media Line. Improvised or not, Cohen’s death demonstrates that such tools’ lethality cannot be underestimated. “These firearms are reaching the level of military made weapons. They fired like an AK47 or M-16,” Rosenfeld noted.
Photographs of the two firearms seized in the incident appear to show that they were both customized from the original bodies of conventional weapons – one a Kalashnikov AK47 and the other the American standard, the M-16. Both weapons fired 5.56 ammunition, Rosenfeld said.
Two weeks later, the scene almost repeated itself, underscoring the growing use of the improvised weapon. Shortly before midnight on a Sunday evening, police patrolling – again in the area of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate -- ordered a man said to be acting suspiciously to stop. The suspect responded by drawing a weapon and was shot dead by the officers. A nearby attacker then opened fire on the police patrol and was also killed, but only after firing scores of rounds at police with his weapons -- an improvised M-16 variant and a second home made gun -- on “automatic.”
Occurring late in the evening after traffic had died down, the gunfire was heard across central Jerusalem.
Weapons of this nature have a long history of use in conflicts involving non-state actors, Nick De Arrinaga, European editor at IHLS Jane’s Defense weekly magazine, told The Media Line. Resistance fighters in France and Poland during World War II; the underground organizations Haganah and Etzel during Israel’s war of independence; and more recently, Chechens seeking to push out the Russian Army, all used improvised weapons, De Arrinaga said.
“There’s a huge breadth of quality when it comes to improvised weapons: Some are very basic, not reliable and potentially dangerous to the user,” the editor said, noting that at the other end of the spectrum are, “essentially underground factories producing standardized weapons.”
Cohen’s killers came into Israel illegally from the West Bank and so it is likely that their weapons were produced there, rather than inside the 1967 borders, and provided to the assailants prior to the attack. The Israeli army, responsible for security in the West Bank, declined to comment on issues relating to the infrastructure used to manufacture and distribute this sort of weapon.
“It’s fairly complicated and it takes time. But the fact is if it’s made by a close circle (of people), the time that it takes them is maybe a couple of days or weeks,” Rosenfeld said. Ammunition is not hard to come by in the West Bank, he said, suggesting that rounds in the possession of the Palestinian security forces can easily fall into the hands of those seeking to shoot Israelis.
Which begs the question, “Why is anybody making improvised firearms when conventional weapons seem to be in no great shortage in the West Bank?”
Availability and cost are the first two reasons that a group might choose to make their own weapons, De Arrinaga said. If it’s difficult to procure weapons or the cost of doing so is prohibitively high, then an organization might choose to build their own. A third reason, De Arrinaga suggested, is to remain unnoticed by security forces.
Homemade guns do not have serial numbers which can be traced. In addition, if they were to be made by a small group of people capable of keeping a secret they could stay beneath the radar and surprise Israel’s security forces.
The fact that improvised weapons are still being made despite the abundance of guns in the West Bank also shows that the individuals using such weapons are not connected to the mainline terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Brigadier-General Nitzan Nuriel, former head of Counter Terrorism to the Israeli Government, told The Media Line.
The individuals making these weapons, “are not connected to any terror groups and want to keep a low profile,” Nuriel said. If a person were to decide they want to conduct an attack against Israelis they might inadvertently tip off security forces if they began by attempting to purchase a weapon. Constructing one at home avoids this problem, according to Nuriel who warned that this is something that is only going to become easier as technology improves.
Instructions for making these weapons is readily available on the internet and most of the items needed to produce them can be easily acquired because they have dual purposes, like agricultural fertilizer used to make explosives, Nuriel explained.
Further complicating these factors is the emergence of new technology in the form of the 3-D printer, a system which allows production of solid plastic objects using a computer file and a specialized printer, and is being developed for firearms production in the United States.
According to Nuriel, 3-D technology has not yet been seen among Palestinian organizations, but it is something they are interested in. “I’m from the group that believes it is only a matter of time until we see more and more improvised explosives and weapons attacks,” the former counter-terrorism chief concluded.
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