Photo by Harriet Salem
Business is booming at the Battle Club gun range in Jerusalem, where dozens of customers jostle to catch the attention of the sales clerk, who is trying to answer questions about different models of Glock handguns while the telephone rings endlessly in the background."As you can see we're busy, very busy," Ronen Rabani, a manager at the store and weapons instructor, said in between the crack of fire from the shooting gallery next door. "People are anxious, there's a lot of panic and having a gun, a handgun, is the only certain way to protect yourself and your family from an attack."
Rabani says the store has seen sales increase by 50 percent since the latest violence broke out, and staff are receiving hundreds of inquires about obtaining firearms permits every day.The upsurge in demand for weapons follows a month of violence that has seen eight Israelis killed and more than 70 wounded in attacks by Palestinians wielding guns, knives, screwdrivers and other sharp objects. On the other side 39 Palestinians have been shot by Israeli security forces, including 18 alleged attackers.Related: Islamic State Unleashes Propaganda Blitz Calling for Attacks Against JewsCurrently around 260,000 Israelis hold a license to carry a firearm — around 3.5 percent of the country's population — including 150,000 private civilians.On Monday, many of the store's customers were among these licensed gun owners, looking to upgrade their weapon and stock up on ammunition, but several others were hoping to become first-time buyers under newly relaxed rules for obtaining a firearms permit.Last week Israel's Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, announced that due to the ongoing security situation restrictions on licensing for firearms would be eased, potentially make thousands more Israelis eligible to carry handguns.While Israelis living in places deemed "dangerous," either close to Palestinian neighborhoods or those living in the occupied West Bank or East Jerusalem are able to obtain a gun license with relative ease, for most people living outside those areas permits are relatively hard to obtain and require meeting age criteria, passing a criminal record check, or working in a security-related field. In most cases those given a firearm license are only permitted to carry a handgun and 50 rounds, both of which much be stored in safes that meet government requirements.
Among those who will benefit from the easing of restrictions on weapons permits are lower ranking military service people and veterans who still need a license to carry a private firearm, as well as people who have taken security guard courses recognized by the government.The decision to relax the rules follows Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's call for all licensed gun owners to carry firearms with them at all times."Given the current escalation in the security situation, those with a licensed firearm who know what to do with it must go out. It's an imperative," he told Israel's Army Radio.Related: In Photos: Riding Along With Medics on the Frontline of Clashes in the West BankBarkat, who himself has been photographed with his Glock 40 in Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, has dismissed criticism of his statements, saying that all Israelis have carried out military service and therefore know how to use a gun.Since the relaxations of restrictions came into effect, license requests have skyrocketed, with more than 8,000 applications on Thursday according to local media. That's a 400 percent increase in requests from before the violence erupted, when around 100-200 applications would normally be submitted."The Internal Security Ministry has just given up answering the phone to people requesting information about a license. They're overwhelmed by the numbers — everyone wants a gun," said Rabani.
But although demand has increased exponentially, there are still strict rules in place."It's not the US where everyone has the right to have a gun, many people inquiring now won't qualify… and for those that do there's still an intensive personal background check and mental assessment," he adds.For those that don't make the cut for a license, or have to wait several months before they receive a permit, Rabani is quick to offer other personal security options, namely metal batons and pepper spray, which sell for between $10 and $60. The former has proved so popular among Israelis that it has currently sold out in nearly ever store in the country certified to stock it and many shops are now running waiting lists for those eagerly awaiting the next delivery.Among them is Daniel, a 32-year-old driving instructor at the Battle Club, said he hoped a security guard course he took two years ago will make him eligible to purchase a firearm. While waiting for the application to proceed, a process he anticipated would take several months, he and his girlfriend planned to buy pepper spray and practice shooting at the range.Related: One Dead and Eleven Wounded After Gunman Attacks Bus Station in Southern Israel"Pepper spray is a second best but it's better than nothing for now," he told VICE News. "I took the [security guard] course a while ago but I also did military service before that, like all Israelis… shooting a gun is like riding a bicycle you don't forget how to do it."
However, while many Israelis are investing in weapons as a means to protect themselves, critics point out that the more firearms are in circulation the greater the risk of gun-related violence, particularly in an environment of panic.According to Gun Free Kitchen Tables, an anti-gun initiative run by Isha L'Isha women's rights organization, between October 2014 and January 2015 alone there were nine deaths and 32 injuries, six critical, caused by gun violence in Israel."Along with this kind of sweeping loosening of checks and restrictions there will be cases of mistaken identity totally [leading to] unprovoked shootings — people will use guns even less responsibly," Rela Mazali, a coordinator for the initiative, said. "There's also now be a climate of encouraging and even cheering the use of guns from the top-down…. Jewish [Israelis] feel that they have impunity in using guns."As a case in point she examples a horrific incident on Sunday night where an Eritrean man was shot by a security guard and then lynched by a mob after he was wrongly identified as an attacker in a stabbing and shooting incident in Be'er Sheva."More firearms lead to more homicide, more suicide and more shooting accidents," adds Mazali. "The grave security situation in Israel/Palestine today doesn't change these basic facts."Watch VICE News' documentary Where's the Money? (Excerpt from 'Fallout in Gaza'):