IDF weapons flooding the streets - analysis

The IDF says only 80 weapons were stolen this past year, so where are the weapons that killed close to 100 Arab-Israelis coming from?

Mortar shells, guns found stashed in school in Abu Sanan (photo credit: Israel Police)
Mortar shells, guns found stashed in school in Abu Sanan
(photo credit: Israel Police)

The continuing plague of murders in Israel’s Arab communities has rocked the country, which for decades has ignored the violence that has swept the community. And many of the weapons are military grade.

The increase in the number of homicides has risen dramatically over the past decade, with close to 100 killed in the past year alone. Arabs account for almost 70% of all homicides in Israel, despite representing only 20% of the population.

The surge of violence has been carried out mainly by young men in communities where there is little or no police presence, coupled with high unemployment, stolen weapons and the opportunity to make easy money.

Though many of the weapons are handguns, others are M-16s, AR15s, AK-47s, “bullpups” and more.

Videos posted on social-media networks like TikTok and Instagram show young men with military-grade weapons firing into the air or driving down desert roads holding their weapons out the window. Other videos show men threatening people or firing at targets.

The amount of illegal weaponry on the streets in Israel is catastrophic. According to GunPolicy.org, in 2017, there were an estimated 267,000 illegal weapons in Israel. By 2020 that number nearly doubled, with a Knesset estimate reporting some 400,000 illegal weapons circulating around the country.

Carlo style submachine guns found by Israeli police on border crossing (credit: BORDER POLICE SPOKESPERSON)Carlo style submachine guns found by Israeli police on border crossing (credit: BORDER POLICE SPOKESPERSON)

So how many of these weapons, if any, are stolen from the Israeli military? According to a report in Haaretz, approximately 70% of the 400,000 illegal weapons in the country are thought to have been stolen from either the army or the police. Another report said thousands of weapons have been stolen from the IDF from 2013-2020, including at least 482 handguns, 47 M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapons (LAWs) and two land mines.

However, the IDF reported only 21 firearms as being stolen from bases over the past year, marking a significant decrease from the previous year when it told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee 80 firearms had been stolen.

The military also noted a decrease especially in thefts from soldiers’ homes, claiming that there were 27 firearms stolen in 2017, compared with 15 in 2020.

Meanwhile, last year, the IDF told the same committee of 100 incidents of weapons theft at the IDF’s Ground Forces Training Center from 2018-2020. According to the military, there were about 50 incidents of theft reported per year at the center in the South.

But it stressed that it might actually have been much higher, as many reservists choose to contact the police directly or decide not to report the theft at all.

According to Brig.-Gen. (res.) Asher Ben Lulu – the former OC Northern Command and CEO of Eshbal, who formed the committee that made the recommendations for how to stop the weapons thefts from military bases – while there has been a rise in criminality both in the North and South, the IDF needs to concentrate in the South.

“The criminality in the South is really high, and something needs to be done,” he said. “The issue of the criminality of the Bedouin is a big issue, and there are so many bases there, and with the IDF’s move south, they need to take the recommendations and not have hundreds of bases with weaponry to make it safer.”

Many of the stolen weapons in recent years were taken by soldiers and civilian contractors who worked on military bases; they had access to bases and knew where the weapons were stored.

That is a criminal issue and not a terrorism issue, which needs the Israel Police and the IDF Military Police Criminal Investigation Division, known in Hebrew by its acronym Metzach, working together, Ben Lulu said.

And while many of the weapons playing a role in the violence among the Arab community may have once been stolen from the military, it’s only a small drop in the bucket of illegal weapons on the street, he said.

“The problem of illegal weapons does not come from the IDF; only 20-80 weapons have been stolen from the military, not even close to 400,000,” Ben Lulu said, adding that other things also are stolen from bases, including weapons parts, explosives and ammunition.

Thousands of soldiers return home with their weapons, and many have had them stolen, he said. While the military has been able to reduce that number by enforcing new regulations for who can leave base with their weapon, “there’s still more that can be done,” he added.

Due to the break-ins at IDF bases, the military created a protocol for securing armories that it said has led to a significant decrease in the theft of weapons from bases and soldiers’ homes.

There needs to be better infrastructure and technology on IDF bases, many of which were built during the British Mandate and have not yet been fitted with the proper technology to stop theft, despite being given a budget of NIS 150 million.

The IDF also needs to have a specific body whose role is to guard the bases and have the relevant know-how and tools to do so, Ben Lulu said.

During the five months that the committee looked into thefts from military bases, it realized that unlike other armies across the world that have a designated body to protect bases, the IDF is the only one that doesn’t, he said.

“There aren’t enough soldiers who are professionally trained to guard military bases,” Ben Lulu said. “Right now, it’s not the smartest soldier guarding the gates.”

“The IDF has to understand that this is a profession on its own and that the protection of bases needs to have its own body... The IDF has to protect itself better and invest more in its security,” he said.

The other issue is smuggling, Ben Lulu said.

Hundreds if not thousands of weapons have been smuggled into Israel from Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula over the years.

The IDF and Israel Police in recent years have cracked down on weapons smuggling, especially in the South, where the 240-kilometer border between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has seen numerous terrorist attacks and countless smuggling attempts.

Troops regularly thwart attempts to smuggle weapons across the Lebanese border. The military has seen a concerning connection between criminal networks and terrorism in the smuggling of drugs and weapons into Israel from southern Lebanon.

In July, Israeli forces thwarted an attempt to smuggle 43 pistols and ammunition from Lebanon near the cross-border village of Ghajar. According to the military, it was one of the largest smuggling attempts in years, with an estimated value of NIS 2.7 million (approximately $820,000).

With easy money to be made from killings and the ease of finding illegal weapons on the street, hundreds of unemployed youths will continue with their criminality until the government gets to the root of the issue.

But one thing is clear, while the IDF has done a good job of thwarting smuggling attempts and reducing the thefts of weapons and ammunition from bases across the country, there is still a lot more that has to be done.