Israel's gun laws are strict. Despite the many security threats facing Israelis, and a horrific record of terror attacks, no Israeli can simply walk into a store and buy a weapon. While some soldiers take their weapons home when they go on leave, Israel’s Ministry of Interior only licenses guns to private individuals who can prove they work or live in dangerous areas, such as the West Bank, or work as security guards in specific sectors. Several levels of screening are involved and permit renewals are mandatory every three years.
Nonetheless, Israeli lawmakers have a great deal in common with their counterparts on Capitol Hill. Both are hostages of powerful, single-interest lobbies that represent small but vocal minorities. Like America’s National Rifle Association (NRA), Israel’s national religious settlers cynically corrupt the intentions and spirit of their founding fathers to justify their agenda and their very existence, and the actions of both groups have disastrous consequences for their fellow citizens.
“I’m not wild about the comparison,” Likud Party Knesset member Yehuda Glick, a leading settlement proponent, told Al-Monitor. “Settlement activity brings peace, whereas NRA activity leads to violence.”
Nonetheless, the NRA itself sought to hold up Israel as an example of the ills of gun control. “Israel had a whole lot of school shootings until they did one thing: They said, ‘We’re going to stop it,’ and they put armed security in every school,” NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said in 2012 after the deadliest school shooting in US history, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were murdered in Connecticut.
Contrary to LaPierre’s assertion, Israel has only had one school shooting in its 70-year history, when 22 schoolchildren were murdered in a 1974 Palestinian terrorist attack in the northern town of Ma’alot. Following this and other attacks over the years, and mainly as a deterrent, Israel posts guards, most of them unarmed or lightly armed, at the entrance to schools, malls, film theaters and other public facilities. Yet its first lines of defense are intelligence gathering, border fences and state security forces.
Whereas Israeli law does not guarantee the right to bear arms as the US Constitution does, the settlers view the land they occupy as their God-given right they trace back to the biblical promise made to their patriarch, Abraham. Both settlers and Americans bearing guns ignore the vastly different reality compared to the era in which these promises and guarantees were made.
Americans were granted the right to bear arms in the context of a war of independence against British colonizers and a pioneering existence in a union still in the making. For the Israelites, the Promised Land was a symbol of hope over millennia of persecution and exile. With stable and independent contemporary states, established domestic police forces and law enforcement authorities, and mighty armies complete with nuclear arsenals, neither context is remotely relevant for Israelis and Americans any longer.
Public opinion appears to agree.
In the wake of the mass killing of 17 people last month at a Florida high school, support for gun control has surged to its highest level in at least 25 years. According to a poll by Politico/Morning Consult, for instance, 68% of registered voters now say they support stricter gun laws.
While an estimated 400,000 of Israel’s 8.6 million inhabitants (less than 4%) live in the West Bank, the vast majority of Israelis have never set foot there, be it for fear of Palestinian attacks or a sense of alienation from the lifestyle and beliefs of the settlement stalwarts.
Opinion polls consistently indicate that half or more of Israelis support the establishment of some form of Palestinian state, which means ceding territory to the Palestinians. Only 11% support annexation of the West Bank to Israel. Even among Likud voters, according to a survey last month by Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of senior former defense officials, only 30% support annexation. Yet under the influence of the hard-line camp in the Likud and its coalition ally to the right, HaBayit HaYehudi, Israel is adopting more and more legislation aimed at annexing large chunks of the West Bank to Israel.
Glick agrees that a majority of Likud voters probably do not support annexation, but notes that the Likud Party’s central executive body voted overwhelmingly last year, albeit in a nonbinding resolution, in favor of annexation. He also does not agree that most Israelis do not support the settlement enterprise. “As the years go by, we have become more and more mainstream. There are 400,000 settlers and they each have families so that at a rough estimate, at least 2 million Israelis support us,” he said. “Every interest group tries to exert influence, and we’re no different.”
It is unclear whether US President Donald Trump meant what he said on Feb. 28, when he appeared to be embracing gun control and urging Republican lawmakers to restore safety legislation opposed for years by the NRA. What is clear is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who views Trump as a kindred soul, is nonetheless unlikely to follow suit and shake off the stranglehold of the settlement lobby and its Likud Party lawmakers, which has imposed a debilitating paralysis on prospects of peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has repeatedly zigzagged on a Palestinian state. However, there is little doubt of his deep, messianic conviction that only he can protect Israel from the Palestinian aspiration to establish a state of their own in the West Bank. He has now managed to convince many Israelis of this threat, becoming a willing hostage of the settlers and their leaders.