Two young men stood under a residential building in Rehovot’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood last week, having a chat. Suddenly, shots were fired, probably from close range, and the two fell to the ground with gaping gunshot wounds.

What followed is a scene that has played itself out repeatedly in recent years. Shocked neighbors rushed to the scene. Within minutes, the sirens of ambulances drew closer, before paramedics arrived to rush the victims to hospital. Police came shortly afterward.

Officer sealed off the shooting scene, and forensic teams marked the bullets casings with small yellow plastic tags and photographed findings.

Both men survived the attack, although one remains in critical condition at the Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot. Police have not arrested any suspects yet, but are investigating the possibility that the shooting followed a dispute between local youths.

Four days later, in an unrelated incident, two men sat in a car in west Rishon Lezion, when several shots were fired at their vehicle. These men were not as fortunate, and both were found dead in the car by paramedics who rushed to the scene.

Although the incidents are not linked, they both represent shocking use of firearms in the heart of built-up areas teeming with civilians.

The second incident, police suspect, was a gangland slaying, and the victims are well known to police due to lengthy criminal records.

Whether they are used in organized crime wars or to settle scores on the street, guns are a fact of life in criminal incidents and remain one of the Israel Police’s biggest challenges. It set the goal of bringing down firearms offenses years ago, but has not yet had any apparent success.

The police were unable to provide figures showing how many recorded firearms offenses were carried out this year or the previous one, despite repeated requests.

It did note in a 2010 crime report that use of weapons in criminal incidents is high, “despite [police] organizational attempts [to bring it down].”

Police frequently launch arms raids against suspects, and seize all manners of weapons, although this has not managed to stem the flow of guns.

“It’s definitely getting worse. That’s self-evident,” said Cmdr. (ret.) Yaakov Borovsky, former head of the northern police district. “The number of criminals has grown, and so have the number of firearms.”

“Statistically, we see a rise in the number of violent incidents involving firearms, such as armed robberies or people threatening others using guns,” he added. “There are shootings in built-up areas. The number of these offenses is on the rise.”

Borovsky stressed that not all gun crime is linked to homicides, noting that firearms are often used for “intimidation.”

When criminals wish to send messages, they sometimes open fire on the homes and properties of rivals.

“The public is in danger, because there are more guns on the street. You know never when weapons will next be used, against whom and to what extent. The weapons are available, and that’s the danger,” he said.

The failure to stop the illegal firearms trade on the black market is the main factor behind the rise in gun crimes, he added. “Today there is a whole illegal arms industry.

Weapons can be obtained with ease, and they’re not expensive,” Borovsky said.

The best way to combat the problem is to create legal deterrence against illegal possession of firearms, Borovsky argued. At the moment, light punishments for such offenses mean that holding guns without a license is at most “a sin,” he said.

“The law needs to become drastic.

It should specify which firearms would receive the heaviest prison sentences – from grenades, handguns, rifles and all the way to mortar launchers,” Borovksy said.

“Prison terms should be several years long. Then we’ll see how many people continue to hold weapons.”

“I’d make it even more draconian, and say that the head of a household where a firearm was found in, even in a yard, should be punished,” Borovsky added.

In 2010, The Jerusalem Post joined a Rishon Lezion police patrol, which was called to a shooting in the western part of the sprawling city.

“SHOTS FIRED – gunman has escaped,” officers in the car were notified. Their vehicle pulled up in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

A 20-year-old man lay screaming in agony in the passenger seat of his black Honda. Minutes earlier, two masked men had approached him as he started his car, opened the car door and fired several rounds at his leg, according to eyewitnesses. Apparently, the act was “merely” a warning.

“My leg!” the man shouted, as blood poured out of several bullet wounds. He was placed on a stretcher by paramedics, taken to a waiting ambulance and rushed to the hospital for surgery to remove the bullets. The man later recovered, and a suspect was arrested for the shooting. But the incident was yet another dark example of how easily bullets can fly in the middle of a residential area.

“This is one of the biggest problems facing police, this intolerable availability of weapons,” said Cmdr.

(ret.) Moshe Mizrahi, former head of the Israel Police’s Investigations and Intelligence Branch. “If you want a gun, you can get it very quickly.”

Israel’s proximity to the Palestinian territories, together with weapons thefts from places such as IDF bases, mean that the gun flow will remain constant in the foreseeable future, Mizrahi added. Arms used by criminals include machine guns and shoulder-held LAW missiles, he noted.

Mizrahi expressed particular concern about the “huge quantity” of arms in the Arab community.

“Intelligence is the key to fighting this. I know police have set this as a high priority,” Mizrahi said. And despite failing to pass on figures to the media, the police’s intelligence departments should be fully aware of how many offenses involving weapons occur every year, he added.

During Mizrahi’s tenure as head of the investigative branch (from 2000 to 2004), the police completed its computerized crimes report system, which enables officers to access data on specific characteristics of recorded crimes, including the use of firearms or explosives. “They should know the figures,” he said.

“I know this is a high priority issue for police. Intelligence is being gathered on those who possess weapons and raids are initiated against suspected addresses,” Mizrahi added.

“If treated intensely, and patiently, this issue can be mitigated,” he said.

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