Personal weapons

The Tel Aviv shooting attack once again raises the question of the extent of illegally held weapons among Israeli Arabs.

Scene of the shooting attack at a pub on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016 (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Scene of the shooting attack at a pub on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv on January 1, 2016
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
The terrorist attack Nashat Milhem carried out on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv on January 1 using his father’s personal weapon once again raises the question of the extent of illegally held weapons among Israeli Arabs. Unfortunately, the government always waits until a terrorist attack occurs before it initiates a round-up of illegal weapons in the Arab sector.
This phenomenon has been around since well before the establishment of the state.
During World War II, Arab residents began accumulating an ample supply of illegal munitions of various sorts, and they have been adding to this collection ever since. No official numbers exist, but experts estimate the number of illegal weapons in the tens of thousands.
Over the years, most of the weapons have been stolen from IDF warehouses, but some come from private individuals as well.
Pistols, rifles, submachine and machine guns, antitank missiles, as well as improvised weapons are held by families and individuals, some of whom are weapons dealers or other sorts of criminals. These weapons are mostly hidden away in secure locations and many of them are left there for years on end and are never used.
We must understand that in traditional Arab society, permits were not a prerequisite for having weapons, and so in present-day Arab society, people who own them are not considered criminals.
Possession of a weapon symbolizes power, dignity, and the ability to protect your extended family. It’s a symbol of social standing for Arab families in villages. Over the years, only a handful of these weapons have been involved in any sort of nationalistic attack or crime. For the most they are only taken out and used during family weddings and other celebrations.
In terms of intelligence gathering, the difficulty in locating these weapons lies in the fact that most illegal arms in Arab communities are hidden away for years without ever being used and as a result it’s impossible to track them.
They can only be located through investigations following specific leads, during which owners sometimes expose a tidbit of information that leads to the discovery of a cache of illegal arms. Most of these weapons, however, are never discovered and remain until today in private caches throughout the country.
The program that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently initiated is not new. It is simply a copy of previous programs that were not implemented and as a result of course failed to eradicate this problematic phenomenon.
As in previous years, the success of the current program will depend on how well it’s implemented on the ground. It is a solid program that could certainly put a significant dent in the number of illegal weapons floating around.
If we seriously want to get rid of the illegal weapons in the Arab sector, we need to send more police officers into Arab neighborhoods, collect more intelligence, and give heavier sentences to people who possess guns illegally. Criminals and arms dealers must not go unpunished; legislation that would allow longer sentences would provide a certain amount of deterrence, too. If the Israeli authorities were to have improved coordination with local Arab leaders, this would also help tremendously. What we need to do is organize a campaign with incentives for people to turn in their weapons under special conditions.
In addition, the IDF needs to carry out a comprehensive overhaul of its warehouse system, since most of the thefts occur in these very same warehouses. It is imperative that the IDF make it more difficult for its weapons to be stolen.
It’s important to note that the local Arab leadership in Israel is well aware of the huge scope of this problem, and that it’s the Arab communities that bear the brunt of the failure to eradicate this phenomenon. According to MK Ahmad Tibi, more than a thousand Arab citizens have been killed over the last two decades as a result of the use of illegal weapons. Large numbers of Arab youth are involved in petty crime due to the increased availability of personal weapons and Arab leaders know this fact well. They also know that they need to do something about this problem sooner rather than later.
Experience shows that for most part, illegal weapons hidden by Arab citizens do not end up being used in nationalistic attacks.
However, if we ignore this phenomenon, we will find ourselves suffering from even worse security problems. From this point of view, any reduction in the quantity of illegal weapons in the Arab sector would be considered a great success.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.