Organizing for Safety and Against Gun Violence in Israel

23 May 2024
Meeting of the Gun Control Forum

(Photo by Shatil)

The horrific October 7 attacks left Israelis feeling less secure than ever. As a result, more requests for gun permits were filed between October 7 and mid-November than in the previous 20 years combined.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir expanded the pool of those eligible for a gun license. For example, he made sure that certain former combat soldiers who were previously ineligible would be eligible, as well as new immigrants who previously had to wait three years to even apply. Scarier still, immediately following the outbreak of war, to approve the huge influx of requests for licenses as quickly as possible, Ben Gvir gave recent high school graduates participating in national service programs the authority to assess a gun license applicant’s suitability instead of training more professionals to review applications. As a result, thousands of licenses were granted without the proper considerations and procedures, and the number of Israelis holding private gun licenses since October 7 has nearly doubled, reaching 230,000 by March 2024.

Many Israelis, among them social change activists, are concerned by the ramifications of this dramatic proliferation of weapons. Palestinian citizens of Israel worry that extremists with easy access to guns will hurt or even kill them. Women’s groups fear a spike in domestic violence and have called for those with histories of domestic violence to be disqualified from obtaining gun licenses. (Ninety-eight percent of applicants for gun licenses are men.) Others have recognized the potential for a jump in the incidence of gun-related deaths.

To assess and respond to the dangers of increased gun ownership, Shatil established the Gun Control Forum, a group of twenty NGOs, including the Israel Democracy Institute, NIF grantees Israel’s Women’s Network, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Sikkuy-Aufoq: For A Shared and Equal Society, alongside Gun Free Kitchen Tables. 

Liat Bolzman, the Shatil organizer leading the Forum, explained: “Shatil is uniquely placed to convene this mobilization and amplify it. Once we identified just how many elements of society this issue touched, we brought together all the organizations most skilled in tackling the problem from different angles. We are proud to implement these joint initiatives in the areas most affected by gun violence—and where violence is most likely.”

She said that Ben Gvir “took advantage of the overwhelming urge to protect citizens after October 7 to sow chaos and endanger populations that can get hurt by having more weapons in the public sphere, especially Arabs, women, and children.”

Ben Gvir, as a part of his push to bring guns into the public sphere, has been developing and encouraging the formation of “community security squads”—groups of volunteers whose stated goal is to provide enhanced security to small, outlying towns and communities, where police have a lighter presence. On October 7, some of these squads which were able to respond saved many lives. But in the weeks since then, some 600 squads have been established and given guns by the police. Ben Gvir is planning to expand their presence to every city in Israel.

The quick rise of these security squads raises major concerns among the Gun Control Forum, and they are asking basic questions like who oversees these armed groups? What measures need to be taken to prevent their arms from reaching the hands of criminal gangs? Police are trained, overseen, and regulated. But these groups’ relationship to such authorities is unclear, yet they mayand are already beginning totake over the duties of the police without any of these things.

Members of the Forum are also exploring how to cultivate communal feelings of safety and solidarity among diverse communities that do not depend on guns. Citizens are developing unarmed neighborhood safety patrols, for example. In Jerusalem, an initiative is training residents who live along the seam of the citywhere Palestinian neighborhoods meet Jewish onesto defuse tense and potentially violent situations without weapons. Elsewhere, neighborhood Whatsapp groups are forming for residents to advise each other of potentially dangerous situations.

Last month, Israel’s version of Saturday Night Live aired a skit mocking the chaotic training offered to new gun owners. For Liat, the fact of the skit’s publication offered a glimmer of hope. If mainstream television is taking notice and mocking the new gun owners and those giving them their guns, she said, there must be a growing public awareness of the dangers posed by unrestrained access to firearms.

Ultimately, the Forum aims to be a space to share information and support initiatives in the field, like shutting down illegal militias. In the coming months, the Forum will continue working on policies, strategies, and campaigns to educate the public and decision-makers on the proliferation of guns and how to regulate it.