Many Israelis Realize They Need More Armed Citizens

by
posted on May 25, 2024
Israeli gun store
Yomiuri Shimbun/AP

It was an early October afternoon some nine years ago when an Israeli news photographer, Meshi Ben Ami, stopped a terror attack in Jerusalem with his personal firearm. It was supposed to be a day like any other. He arrived at a light-rail station and waited for his ride. But, at 1:20 p.m., a terrorist armed with a knife began to attack people.

“I understood that I had to act to finish this,” Ben Ami told The Media Line (themedialine.org), an American news agency covering the Middle East. “So, I pulled out my gun and shot at him.”

Seven years later, Ben Ami escaped another brush with death in Jerusalem—again, because he had his gun at his side.

A terrorist had just stabbed a man and was chasing additional victims, said Ben Ami. “I pulled out my weapon, aimed it. I yelled at him, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ He didn’t stop.” When “he was only a meter or two away from me, he raised his hand with the knife, so I shot him twice, neutralizing him.”

Then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid honored Ben Ami and another armed civilian, Haim Naim, for their responses to that attack.

Ben Ami said he does not regret shooting the terrorists. “The opposite. I saved someone else’s life by stopping an attack. I shot someone who committed an attack, and if I hadn’t, then more people would have been injured.”

Still, even as more citizens in Israel are realizing they need to be prepared to defend themselves and others, taking on this responsibility comes with risks. For example, in December of 2023—about two months after the October 7 terrorist attack—another armed Israeli citizen’s, Yuval Castleman, heroic action ended in tragedy.

Castleman responded to a terror attack in Jerusalem and neutralized the threat; however, in the chaotic aftermath, he was mistaken for a terrorist by a reservist soldier and fatally shot. He was shot even though he was reportedly holding his hands in the air and shouting, “Don’t shoot. I’m Jewish. I’m Israeli.”

In response to questions about Castleman’s death, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the public, saying, “Dozens of times in the past, the presence of civilians with weapons prevented a major disaster, which supports the policy of distribution of weapons. We should continue it. This is the policy and there are costs—this is life.”

Guns in Post-Oct. 7 Israel
Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel—in which some 1,200 people were slaughtered and over 240 kidnapped—left many citizens worried about their security.

“What happened in October, I think, woke a lot of the community up.” Many are now asking, “‘Wait, can’t we do more to protect ourselves, and how do we do it?’” said Adam Sager, who lived in Israel for many years and served in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Reconnaissance Unit, Communities Security Service (CSS). “And, of course, the IDF is the best in the world, but they’re not trained for community security.

“What we realized is, from a security point of view, how important it is to not just rely on the IDF.”

In the pursuit of empowerment, Israel’s National Security Ministry—under Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir—has loosened the eligibility criteria for private gun ownership.

While some have welcomed this, others say this is an overreaction. Before Oct. 7, about 170,000 Israeli civilians were licensed to carry private handguns; at the time, the Ministry of National Security received about 850 applications per week.

Meshi Ben Ami, Eliav Jan, Mirit Sharabi

Mirit Sharabi, an attorney and research analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line that there were, on average, 12,000 permit requests filed annually, with a maximum in any one year of around 32,000 requests.

“In 2021, for instance, there were only 11,000 licenses approved in the whole year. In 2020, only 5,000 were approved,” she said.

But, in the five months after Oct. 7, there were more than 280,000 requests, an average of over 1,000 per day. In the months since, over 50,000 have been fully approved and thousands of provisional licenses have been issued; as a result, over 221,000 Israeli civilians are now licensed to carry handguns.

“You really see the change in the approach, of course, of the Israeli public, but also in the approach from the ministry,” said Sharabi.

Among those who have applied for and received gun permits in recent months is Rafael Haviv, a national operations manager at the Epstein and Sons engineering company. Haviv says that he had applied for a gun permit in the past because he often found himself working in potentially dangerous locations in the West Bank and near the Gaza Strip border, but he was refused.

“The criteria were very strict. I didn’t live in a qualifying area, and to qualify based on my place of work was too complicated,” he said. “There was a lot of bureaucracy. ... The 7th of October gave me the push I needed to start over and get it.”

This time, Haviv qualified based on his rank as a sergeant 1st class in the IDF reserves.

Eliav Jan, a former border police officer and resident of Ramla in central Israel, was also previously denied a gun permit. But he told The Media Line that after Oct. 7, “I applied again because I think it’s necessary.”

“We live in a nation where our enemies are surrounding us on all sides and are looking to harm us. And I’ve been in several situations in my life where we wouldn’t be speaking today if I hadn’t been armed. So, I see it as a necessity where, in any given situation, there should always be an experienced armed person nearby. To wait for the army or police is not enough. Not that they don’t do a good job, but they can’t be everywhere all the time.”

Ben Ami also said he felt the need to be armed.

“I didn’t get a gun to look [for trouble]. It’s just for personal safety. To make me feel more secure, for me and my family,” he said. “I’m ready for every scenario. It could happen now, and it could happen next month. But it will happen. It’s not something where I wait on the border and wait for it to happen, but I live in an area that could easily be hit by an attack or some sort of violence.”

Haviv said that the Oct. 7 attack had shattered Israelis’ sense of security.

“I know friends who live there, and there was nothing they could do,” he said. “Those poor people … they hid like kittens under cars to avoid being murdered and had no way to protect themselves.”

Israeli citizens undergoing training
As many more Israeli citizens have applied for and received licenses to own and carry firearms, they have also been undergoing training. (Ilia Yefimovich/AP)


Until recently, applicants had to meet strict guidelines to qualify for a gun permit, typically having to prove the need for a gun, to pass criminal background checks for themselves and their immediate families and to pass an in-person interview. Once approved, they were required to practice regularly at a designated range and to take safety and emergency-response classes four times per year. They also needed to prove that they lived or regularly worked in areas designated as dangerous and were above the age of 27 or above a certain military training level.

Sharabi said that Ben-Gvir had eased matters to allow nearly every former soldier who had completed just two months of basic training to obtain a gun permit. Eligibility was also extended to applicants as young as 21 and to those who had done one year of national service. The ministry has also automatically extended existing licenses by six months without the previously required regular checks.

In addition, some 800 local civilian defense squads, called Kitat Konenut, have been established across Israel in recent months. Each team operates in its own community in coordination with local security services. The volunteer guards in the squads must be aged between 21 and 68, must be exempt from IDF reserve duty and must hold clean bills of health and have clean security records.

Ben-Gvir said that his ministry’s policy in the wake of Oct. 7 is to “allow as many people as possible to receive weapons.” He said that Israel could soon have as many as 400,000 private handgun owners.

Controversy Over the Easing of Requirements
“The process to get hold of a weapon in Israel is carefully implemented and takes several weeks,” said Superintendent Micky Rosenfeld, the head of International Coordination for the Israel Police. He said the ministry only issues gun permits “after a significant background-security process is carried out” and that the vast majority of those who request a gun license served in the military.

For an armed citizen to act, Ben Ami said there must be an immediate and direct threat to life. In a crowded area, if “you see a terrorist who starts to wave a knife around, and you understand that he’s a risk to many lives and the chances are high that he’ll hurt someone … you can act.”

But, “if you’re alone, and someone stands about 10 to 15 meters from you with a knife saying he’ll kill you, that’s not an immediate threat to your life,” he said. “You can pull your gun and warn him to drop the knife. If he starts closing in … [and] he gets to about two meters away, and you’re certain that your life is at risk, then you can shoot.”

Rafael Haviv said he welcomes the loosened restrictions and that the rules are still strict enough to prevent firearms from ending up in the wrong hands.

“After what happened on Oct. 7, shame on us if we continued with the same limitations. Imagine how many people needed to be armed to protect themselves but couldn’t,” he said.

“I filled out all the forms. It took two months before I got a response. Then I had a telephone interview. And after that, I waited for all the permissions. They verified everything I submitted. They saw my background, including that two of my sons are combat soldiers who’ve been in Gaza since Oct. 7. They check everything. You even need a physical [exam] to prove that you’re 100% fit to carry. And with that, I got my provisional license. I then had to go to an armory to get professional training and take an operator’s test. And only after that, did I get the approvals which were sent to the Interior Ministry and wherever else for me to get my license.”

Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir
Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is shown here (center) at an event inaugurating a new civilian guard unit. (Ilia Yefimovich/AP)


While reporting this story, The Media Line repeatedly found that even now, after the horrific terrorist attack, Israel’s gun laws are still much stricter than those in much of the United States. Unlike the U.S., there is no constitutional right to bear arms in Israel.

“The culture in the U.S. is very different,” said Ben Ami. “We have a lot of bureaucracy and not everyone is approved to get a gun license. Ben-Gvir loosened the ropes, but there are still criteria, and not everyone meets those criteria.”

He said Israeli gun holders are “very aware of the rules and consequences. It’s not like you get the license and that’s it. You have to run drills, you have to take annual courses, train and you have a guide who teaches you the new rules that have been added to the old.”

There are also limitations on the types of guns Israelis can have, with private citizens nearly all limited to handguns. Rifles are reserved for the military, civilian defense squads, the police and select members of national services.

“From the moment you get a weapon, you become a sort of guard for your family and those around you … but you’re not looking for trouble. Not at all,” said Ben Ami.

Haviv agreed, saying, “When you’re armed, you turn into a person who is much more responsible … you avoid things that otherwise might get you into a conflict with other people. I’m taking one-on-one training with a shooting instructor to behave properly and train my decision-making. I’m afraid to do anything wrong. It’s new to me, and that’s my responsibility, and I hope other people take similar steps.”

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