Israel Targets Palestinian Gun Manufacturers
At first glance, the bridal shop in the Palestinian city of Nablus appeared innocuous. But behind the scenes, Israeli intelligence officials says, the store served as a front for a major West Bank gun distribution center.
“Components for weapons were continuously being sold out of there,” a senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) source told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
The store turned out to be part of a wide network of weapons dealers who illegally acquired guns on the Internet, according to an IDF spokesperson.
Nine suspects, including the store owner, are in custody, but additional members of the weapons trafficking ring remain at large. “They came from all walks of life and from varied layers of Palestinian society,” the IDF source stated.
Since mid-2016, the IDF has been engaged in an intensive, large-scale campaign to seize as many firearms circulating in the West Bank as possible, in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists.
A growing number of such firearms have been used in deadly attacks, such as the Sarona Market shooting in Tel Aviv last June, where two Palestinian gunmen murdered four people in a restaurant. In that attack, the gunmen used locally produced automatic rifles dubbed “Carlos” (due to their resemblance to the Carl Gustav Swedish sub-machine gun).
While the latest wave of arrests focused on traders who used the Internet to import gun parts, most of the people that the IDF targets manufacture and assemble guns in local workshops. Seven such workshops have been shut down since January 2017, and 84 guns have been seized by Israeli security forces, according to figures made available by the IDF.
“The terrorist threat picture has changed. In the past, the main threat was posed by organized, institutional organizations,” a senior security source said. “For the most part, these were hierarchical terror cells, with a clear division of labor. There was someone responsible for financing, someone else … [transported] the suicide bomber or gunman, etc. This threat still exists. Hamas is trying to organize such cells all the time. But the main challenge these days comes from terrorists that we do not have prior knowledge [of].”
Lone attackers, or small, localized cells with no organizational affiliation or criminal backgrounds, are far harder for intelligence services to detect. These types of attackers, some of whom have suicidal tendencies or are in personal crisis, will often attempt simple attacks, using whatever is at their disposal. This can take the form of knife or vehicle attacks, or buying a locally available weapon.
As long as guns are cheap and affordable, the source warned, “Anyone can get [them]. Many of the shootings cells we captured in the West Bank were armed with these types of weapons.”
One year ago, a locally produced Carlo rifle cost around NIS 2,300 ($628) in the West Bank, meaning that Palestinians could purchase it with a single month’s salary.
“The Sarona Market gunmen had no outside financial support, but still managed to get their hands on [the] firearms. The suits they wore [to disguise their identities] cost more than their guns,” the source said.
“This is why we are in the midst of an intensive campaign targeting the manufacturing and trade of weapons and gun parts. Even if I can’t get rid of the illegal weapons phenomenon, I can make them less accessible, and much harder to traffic.”
The Palestinian Authority would also like to see these guns taken off the street, the source said, since they encourage lawlessness and anarchy in areas that pose a challenge to the PA’s rule.
Thefts from IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians, as well as Palestinian trade with Israeli weapons traffickers who do not care where their guns end up, provide other sources of terrorist arms.
But efforts by security forces to stem the tide are beginning to pay dividends. Today, a Carlo gun costs more than NIS 6,000 (approximately $1,600).
“With time, we are seeing improvements,” the source said. “We are seizing more than we did in the past, and our intelligence techniques have improved, so that we can capture guns not only in homes, but also in the manufacturing locations, and when they are moved around. This is a campaign. No single incident will stamp out the problem. So long as the profit from this trade is big enough compared to the fear of arrest or facing raids, many Palestinians will continue to be active in it. ”
Ultimately, the source said, “We will seek to decrease the number of guns and keep raising the price [of acquiring them]. This will result in less terrorists [using guns], and resorting to less lethal attack forms, such as knife attacks.”
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence. This article was originally commissioned by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.