Key questions about weapons smuggling that threatens Israel

The types of weapons being intercepted and seen in photos is important because over the years, the sources of weapons destined for Palestinian terrorist groups have shifted

  Joint police-IDF operation foils smuggling of over 30 weapons (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
Joint police-IDF operation foils smuggling of over 30 weapons
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)

Weapons smuggling is an increasing threat to security in the West Bank. This issue became clear again this week when a Jordanian was detained with dozens of handguns and rifles while crossing at Allenby Bridge.

This is different from weapons in Gaza because the Gaza Strip is controlled by the Hamas terrorist group, and it is festooned with weapons they have stockpiled for decades. This includes a vast infrastructure of rockets and other munitions.

The West Bank is different for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Israel controls access to the West Bank, either via Israel or from Jordan. Secondly, the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) are historically backed by the West, especially via the US Security Coordinator.

This means, ostensibly, that the West Bank is supposed to be secure, either in Area C, which is controlled by Israel, or in Area A, where the PA has security and administrative control.

However, the last year has illustrated that this is not the case. Palestinian gunmen in Jenin and Nablus have become more outspoken in their rhetoric and more brazen in their display of weapons. The destabilization has even impacted Jericho, which is a center for the PASF. Weapons smuggling appears to underpin this threat. What we know about the weapons smuggling can be gleaned from several sources.

 Drugs and weapons seized after a smuggling attempt across the Israel, Lebanon border. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE) Drugs and weapons seized after a smuggling attempt across the Israel, Lebanon border. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

The IDF releases details on operations in the West Bank and the confiscation of illegal weapons that are found. For instance, according to a report last August, “During activity in the town of Yatta, one additional terrorist suspect was apprehended. The soldiers confiscated two illegal M-16 rifles as well as two handguns.”

On April 16, the IDF and the Israel Police said they had “thwarted a weapons-smuggling attempt of 15 handguns and apprehended three individuals suspected of carrying out the smuggling.”

Another source on the weapons in the West Bank is social media. Palestinian militants often post photos of themselves holding weapons. Sometimes, the media also share the same photos, and researchers at think tanks, such as Joe Truzman at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, often document these issues.

So, that leaves us with some information, but in general, we are only seeing a part of the elephant. If the elephant is all the illegal weapons and all the issues connected to them, then we are only seeing pieces.

Here are some of the key questions that are linked to the weapons trade.

What types of weapons are being smuggled?

Photos of the weapons often show a variety of handguns and rifles. The rifles come in various types, but most are similar to variants of the AR-15, M-16, M-4 or CAR-15. Essentially these are mostly rifles made in the US. Basically, these are not AK-47s or weapons with an origin in Russia, Iran or China.

The handguns also come in various types, but recent photos have shown Sig P-320s, M18s or M17s, which is a pistol that is used by the US military and is also sold for civilian use.

The types of weapons being intercepted and seen in photos is important because over the years, the sources of weapons destined for Palestinian terrorist groups have shifted. However, some trends remain the same.

In the beginning of the Second Intifada, The Guardian reported, “Israeli intelligence officials claim that the Palestinian militias – tanzim – have 70,000 guns at the ready: M16s and other automatic rifles mainly, but heavy machine guns, too. ‘They are not going to run into any shortage of guns or ammunition,’ an Israeli military official says.”

Over the years, Israel has cracked down on the illegal weapons, seizing many and also going after illegal gun-making workshops that make “Carlo”-style weapons.

When the PASF were initially being supported by the USSC and trained and armed, “the senior Palestinian security sources said between 3,900 and 4,900 Kalashnikovs and M-16 rifles and other weapons were being stored in the West Bank city of Jericho and in Gaza for Preventive Security as well as Abbas’s National Security and General Intelligence services,” Reuters reported in 2007.

This gives some insight into the prevalence of the M-16-style rifle and its variants in the West Bank and the eclipse of the AK-47 as a tool among the terrorists.

Is smuggling increasing?

The presence of weapons in the West Bank is not new. Neither are reports of weapons smuggling. However, the IDF said last year it had increased its success against weapons smuggling. The numbers are complex to decipher. More weapons being stopped might indicate more success. It can also indicate more attempts. It’s difficult to know.

If the number of weapons being smuggled was constant, then any increase in the numbers being stopped would represent a larger percentage of them being interdicted. If the numbers being smuggled are increasing, then the percent intercepted might be the same.

This is one of these situations where there are known knowns, unknown unknowns, unknown knowns and known unknowns. We know weapons are being smuggled. We don’t know how many are being smuggled. We might know how many are being confiscated. But we don’t know what percent are being stopped. There may also be issues that we don’t know about at all.

Who is behind the smuggling?

Another issue relating to weapons smuggling is determining to what degree this is part of a vast terrorist network that is part of a larger plan to destabilize the West Bank, or whether some of it is just for financial gain and linked to criminals.

Clearly, guns are used in criminal violence and also clan or family disputes, as well as by gangs in the West Bank.

Criminal networks may be linked to Bedouin smuggling networks or have links farther away, stretching to Afghanistan or via Sinai to North Africa or to drug smugglers in Syria.

Some weapons are also used for show. Terrorist groups like to pose with guns. This is not a small issue. Many of the terrorists will purposely pose with four or five M-16-style rifles to show off.

Clearly, soldiers don’t go into battle with three rifles slung over their shoulders. No terrorist would operate effectively that way either. There is even a series of photos showing Palestinians posing in the same chair in a room full of guns. This is for propaganda.

Therefore, guns are not just for use in attacks. They are also about prestige. Some of the terrorists will acquire all sorts of accessories to decorate their rifles. They will put grips on the rifles, rails, new sights and other items, such as attempting to acquire M21 Optics, GriPod bipods and pistol grips.

Some of these accessories are easier and cheaper to acquire than others and some are probably easier to smuggle than others. The photos don’t tell us enough about who is behind the smuggling. It is known that Iran has indicated in recent years that it wants to support Palestinians in the West Bank. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has tried to recruit in the West Bank, and it has said it is using “unseen hands” to try to move modern rifles to the Palestinians.

However, that may only be a part of how the rifles get to the West Bank. Iran’s “hands” may only be a small part of the smuggling. That in some cases dozens of weapons have been intercepted in one shipment or linked to one individual seems to imply that organizations are behind some smuggling. No one person can acquire a million dollars’ worth of firearms without a network of support.

Also, the questions raised by how the smugglers acquire new and modern rifles and sights and pistols speaks to weapons being diverted to the smugglers. The nexus of criminal and terrorist groups revealed by such activities as drug smuggling from Syria illustrates that sometimes these issues are not separate.

What is the threat to the PA Security Forces?

The PASF have been backed by the United States for many years, and the EU has backed the PA’s police force. The forces were key to bringing security and stability to the West Bank after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip.

In recent years, especially in the last six months, however, it appears the security forces have lost control of areas in Nablus and Jenin, and they are having a harder time controlling the situation. What is not clear are the reasons behind this. It may be due to stagnation of the PA and its aging leadership.

The US track record in training security forces has not always panned out. US training in Iraq largely left an empty shell after 2011, but the Iraqi forces trained under CJTF-OIR since 2015 have been more successful. The Syrian Democratic Forces have been successful in Syria as well.

These “train and equip” and “advise and assist” programs, as well as use of Security Force Assistance brigades, have had mixed results elsewhere. Afghanistan, for instance, fell apart. The PA has not collapsed. However, the IDF operations to “break the wave” of terrorism since last year illustrate a disturbing pattern. Can the PASF refill the vacuum?

The illegal weapons appear to be undermining the PA and its authority. It is not yet clear if this is part of an Iran-backed plan to empower Islamic Jihad and Hamas, or whether it is more haphazard.

How much do weapons cost?

One key aspect behind the weapons smuggling is a debate about whether the cost of these weapons is going up. Last year, reports consistently said the costs of an M-16-style rifle were increasing from thousands of dollars to $17,000 and then between $30,000-$40,000.

Once again it’s difficult to explain how criminal networks would acquire so many expensive rifles if these were the real costs. It’s also unclear where the terrorist groups would get all this money.

Reports of drugs or gold being seized might reveal a larger network of financing. In the television show The Wire, there is a sentence about following drugs and getting drug dealers and following money and not knowing where it will lead. Clearly, if the weapons are so expensive, the cash is going somewhere.

The origin of the weapons

A key question is the tracing of the guns themselves. Guns have serial numbers, and they are manufactured somewhere. In the case of some of these weapons, these are clearly American-made rifles and handguns.

That means they begin their life at a factory in the US or through a licensed manufacturer. Then they cross an ocean or fly in a plane. At some point, they are diverted illegally.

In the past, reports have said some weapons are stolen from the IDF, and others may have been lifted from depots in Iraq or even further away in Afghanistan or come from other places such as Libya.

Iran has also been behind weapons smuggling as well as terrorist groups in the Sinai. Tracing the weapons might give a better picture of the networks behind them and how they get diverted to the West Bank. In some historical cases, such as the Karine A affair, the larger story is more well known. Today, it is less clear.

Why doesn’t the international community care?

Very little focus is put on the illegal weapons that threaten security among the Palestinians. The human-rights groups and UN organizations that operate in the West Bank don’t appear to report or focus on the issue of illegal weapons and gun violence that impacts Palestinian society.

There is a clear gap in coverage. For many years, the rising gun violence in the West Bank has been clear, and yet there are very few official and independent reports on it.