Pistol shots ring out and carbines linger in the air at an Israeli settlement gun range in the occupied West Bank, as Tomer Gal completes the final step of his firearms license assessment.
Like many Israelis who are increasingly fearful of an escalation of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gal decided to obtain a gun license – a lengthy process that National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir tried to speed up.
“It’s for my security, but also for my family,” said the 35-year-old, an electrical contractor from Rehovot in central Israel, after cocking his 9mm handgun under the watchful eye of the instructor.
Gal, who employs Palestinians from the West Bank, is working on construction sites in Israel that are known as “not the safest places”.
Although Gal started his request more than a year ago, his visit to the Givat Zeev settlement shooting gallery came weeks after the deadliest gun attack on Israeli civilians in more than a decade.
On January 27, a Palestinian shot dead seven people outside the synagogue before being killed by police in the Jewish settlement of Neve Yaakov, in annexed east Jerusalem.
Israel’s police commissioner responded to the attack by asking those entitled to carry firearms to do so, and in the days that followed Ben-Gvir, the leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, said he would step up the licensing.
– ‘Cut the red tape’ –
The attack on the synagogue was “a great example of the necessity and importance of civilians armed with guns”, the national security ministry said, bemoaning a huge backlog of license applications.
At the time, more than 17,000 applications were still being processed.
Ben-Gvir said it was his “duty to speed up the process and greatly reduce bureaucracy”, ordering increased official working hours to increase monthly license clearances from 2,000 to 10,000.
Former military officers were also exempted from requiring an interview as part of the process, a temporary measure that expired in May.
Attacks and security incidents traditionally increase interest in gun licenses, an Israeli official told AFP, without providing further details on the recent surge in new applications.
The Israeli authorities’ plan to crack down on the population has fueled further concern in some quarters.
Volker Turk, the United Nations human rights commissioner, responded to Ben-Gvir’s suggestion with a warning that more gun ownership will only lead to more violence and bloodshed.
Turk asked the Israeli authorities to reduce the “availability of firearms”.
“We know from experience that the proliferation of firearms will cause increased risks of killing and injury to both Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.
Under current laws, potential owners must live or work in West Bank settlements, or undertake a job that is exposed to danger or potential friction with the Palestinians.
Retired officers from the Israeli security forces may also qualify.
Applicants undergo police and medical screening, followed by an interview at the firearms licensing section of the Ministry of National Security.
Only then can they buy a gun, complete training, and finally get a license.
– ‘Not Switzerland’ –
Gal’s decision to buy a firearm came “about a year ago”, after an 11-day war in May 2021 between Israeli militants and Hamas in the coastal Gaza Strip.
The conflict resulted in a large number of knife attacks against Israel and violent riots in mixed Jewish-Arab towns in Israel.
“It wasn’t exactly because of the wave of terror, but it affected things,” said Gal.
After the 2021 violence eased, Gal said he considered letting the license application drop — but when an Israeli Arab was accused of rape near his home, he bought his pistol.
“It was pressure mainly from my wife,” he said. “She felt really insecure.”
Yair Yifrach, 57, who owns the Givat Zeev shooting range, said the recent violence has generated an increase in gun ownership inquiries.
“After the Neve Yaakov attack, purchases, questions and phone calls have increased again,” he said.
Yifrach, who has carried a gun for 35 years, believes that responsibly used firearms can increase security.
“We don’t have a police officer for every civilian in Israel,” he said.
After the 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, people “woke up” to the need to have a gun, Yifrach said.
“Even those who didn’t want realized they needed one. We’re not in Switzerland.”