Up in Arms

Israelis Flock to Buy Guns, Pack Heat at Services

 JERUSALEM—Unemployment and inflation are skyrocketing in Israel, but fear and paranoia are also soaring, and so business is booming for gun dealers and security companies. Israeli society is becoming so militarized that hosts of weddings and bar mitzvahs sometimes can't attract guests unless they reveal the number of armed guards that will be on hand and even what firm they're from.

It's not just rightists and settlers who are arming themselves. At the Magnum Gun Store in West Jerusalem, a first-time buyer waits in a line that runs out the door and down the block. A 40-year-old lawyer, David moved from Chicago several years ago. "I vote Meretz, and so do most of my friends," he says with a shrug, referring to one of the country's more left-leaning parties. "But to be honest, I think I'm the last person I know to finally get a gun." A balding man next in line is growing noticeably impatient with such dovish sentiments. He wears a T-shirt emblazoned with an F-16 jet streaking across the front, and the message "Don't Worry, America, Israel Will Protect You."

Inside the store, the aura is unambiguously stars-and-stripes: posters of Harley-Davidsons and Charlton Heston, ads announcing "Smith & Wesson: The American Choice." Other stores are no less surreal. At the mega-mall Kirion, located in Kiryat Bialik, the Arsenal Store sits wedged between a day care center on one side and the remains of a 3000-year-old city named Afeq on the other.

illustration: Insu Lee

More than a year ago the twin pillars of Israel's economy—tourism and technology—began teetering. Tourism was gutted by the fear of violence, and Israel's prized technology industry fared little better after the global bursting of the dotcom bubble. But business couldn't be better for some. Security-technology companies are reporting record profits, and in Tel Aviv there are waiting lists to buy hidden cameras. No one, however, has done as well as the gun dealers. Some Jerusalem stores have been extending their hours to accommodate the overflow of customers. Hardly a recent development, the arms rush began with the start of the intifada. In April, the Interior Ministry reported that applications for licenses had tripled.

And now Israelis who crave guns have a convenience that even Americans don't have: dealers who make house calls. On Sundays, you can forget about trying to catch up with Itzhak Mizrahi, owner of Jerusalem's Magnum 88 store. He is most likely on the move in his converted 18-wheeler somewhere in the West Bank or within the Green Line (the country's pre-1967 border). "I go all over," he says.

As a physical and economic sense of insecurity widens in Israel, a stockpiling mentality seems to have taken hold. "Things are not getting better," remarks one customer who was having his Glock serviced. "So I intend to be ready."

Even while praying.

David Lau, rabbi of Tze'irei Modi'in synagogue and son of Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, drew wide attention with his reinterpretation of religious law in which he argued that due to the current climate, Jews could now remain holstered even on Shabbat. Historically, it was strictly forbidden within Orthodox doctrine to work, handle money, or carry weapons on the Sabbath, but Lau ruled that, based on the religious tenet of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), the faithful could now carry them. "It was a deviation from our tradition," Lau admitted to The Jerusalem Post. In less Orthodox circles, guns have been present, and even encouraged, in synagogues for some time. At Shitblach Synagogue in West Jerusalem there is a large sign pasted on the bulletin board that reads: "Worshippers who have firearms are requested to bring them to prayer service."

B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, points out that there are countless incidents of Israeli civilian attacks on unarmed Palestinians and of settlers using their weapons to coerce farmers off their land. But many Israelis worry more about the potential harm to one another. Security guards complain that telling the good guys from the bad is never easy, but that now with everyone holding a gun it's impossible to know whom to watch. "It's making our job really tough," a security guard standing in front of the Jerusalem Hilton says. "You don't want to shoot the wrong person." The increased militarization of society has also spurred the growth of the black market trade in munitions. After four settlers were shot and killed by a Palestinian gunman who snuck into Adora, a hilltop settlement in the West Bank, an investigation revealed that the ammo used in the shooting had come from an Israeli military depot. More than 60,000 bullets had apparently been stolen and sold, for half a shekel each, to Palestinian militants. And as it turns out, three of the dealers were Jewish settlers from Adora.

What little anti-gun sentiment used to exist is virtually nonexistent now. Despite the fact that guns are big business in Israel, there is neither watchdogging nor any equivalent of the NRA. "We don't have a gun lobby," says Adam Keller of Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group. "But we don't have a James Brady either." The result is that the only real check on the flow of guns is market demand.

Israelis have always been accustomed to guns. Military service is compulsory, and it's common to see off-duty soldiers in plainclothes, lounging in public places with M-16 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Previously, the only vocal gun opponents were feminist organizations concerned about firearms being in the hands of enraged husbands. "Usually, we are against it, but we are in a special situation right now," says Gali Etzion, a spokesperson for Na'Amat, a women's organization that formerly worked on, among other things, tightening restrictions on gun ownership. "If somebody wants to guard my kid's kindergarten, I can't say I'm against the idea."

Israelis need permits to legally acquire guns, and there are an estimated 340,000 legal gun owners in Israel, out of a total population of 6.3 million, a ratio that pales in comparison with the roughly 80 million gun owners in the U.S. out of a population of 280 million. After the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish religious fanatic wielding a legally issued handgun, Israel's permit process was significantly tightened. But laws were drastically liberalized earlier this year, opening eligibility for 60,000 new civilians to apply for weapons.

Bulk permits now allow for the circulation of unchecked numbers of weapons as municipalities, schools, and hospitals are among the many institutions that can apply for block licenses to arm their employees. But by far the biggest and least monitored guns are those licensed en masse to companies in Israel's fast-growing security industry.

"We had to double our staff in a matter of months," says Robi Said of Otsma Security Services, which outfits restaurants and cafés with guards. Beni Tal, who runs the country's largest security firm, caters to high-end clients, providing bodyguards for ritzy parties and government officials by employing a small army of more than 1000 full-time staff and more than 600 part-timers. "These days," says Tal, "when people send out invitations to weddings and bat mitzvahs, it says exactly how many guards will be present and from what company. If you don't specify, no guests show up."

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