Interview with Rela Mazali: Israel’s loose guns, military occupation, and its blindspots

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The Israeli feminist organization Gun Free Kitchen Tables (GFKT) is an initiative working to decrease small arms proliferation in the Israeli public sphere and to eliminate the violence facilitated by easy access to firearms. In March 2017, they issued “Loose Guns: Israeli Controlled Small Arms in the Civil Sphere.”  Rebecca L. Stein sat down with Rela Mazali, a founding member of GFKT and veteran feminist anti-occupation activist, to discuss the report.

RLS:  Loose Guns argues that Israeli civil sphere is dangerously over-armed and that this condition has been normalized within mainstream Jewish Israeli society.  Does this explain the lack of data on this topic?   As the authors say, this the first comprehensive study of this issue – a really remarkable fact.

Rela Mazali (Photograph courtesy of Merve Arkun).

RM:  Yes, it is remarkable. Comprehensive data on gun crime and gun-related homicides is available in many countries but not in Israel/Palestine. Normalization is part of the reason for this but it’s also the result of the entrenched militarization of Jewish society in Israel. Guns are normalized because most of the Jewish majority believe they live in a constant state of peril, requiring constant protection. The need for security is perceived as the need to be armed and militarized.  Also, small arms are thought to be purely defensive and unthreatening.

RLS:  Can you summarize the report for Mondoweiss readers?  What are the most important findings? 

Possibly most important is the fact that Israel enforces gun laws very selectively and that non-enforcement reinforces Jewish hegemony by facilitating the oppression of disadvantaged groups.  For example, we found that non-enforcement among Israel’s Palestinian citizens supports the local power brokers from their own communities, who often terrorize parts of the community and prioritize both their own interests and those of the state over the wellbeing of the local population. We also see considerable non-enforcement in the occupied West Bank, which allows the Jewish settler population and the military to break gun laws at will.

RLS:  In the absence of organized data, I suspect that quantifying the presence of small-arms was difficult at best.  What kinds of numbers are we talking about, legal and illegal? 

This report estimates the number of licensed guns permeating the civil sphere in 2013 at between 311,000 to 326,000.  It also concludes that the legal volume might be equal to the volume of illegal arms. The legal arms include at least 11,000-25,000 military arms, including military weapons issued to thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Another 26,000 licensed arms in the civil sphere are carried by police, border police and prison services.

RLS:  The report is interested in what it calls the “civil sphere”.  But given the geography of military occupation and the ways it spills into civil life on both sides of the Green Line, this is surely difficult to map with precision. How is this “civil sphere” being defined and delineated?

Since Israel has not agreed to definitive borders, the civil sphere identified by the report includes both the territory inside Israel proper and the occupied West Bank.  While most of it is subject to Israeli control, with parts under direct military occupation, it is largely populated and used by Palestinians civilians – as readers surely know. This too is part of the civil sphere we are discussing, along with the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are civilian settlements.  For the purposes of our stock-taking, we argue that the distinctions between the arms of military personnel, police, private security guards, etc. and those owned and used by private citizens are negligible.  All of these guns routinely injure, intimidate and kill civilians and all fall under the jurisdiction of the state. Today, for example, Jewish settlements are armed by the military with 4,000 to 5,200 guns at the very least. These arms are deployed by civilian security officers whose salaries are paid by the army.

RLS:  As in other geopolitical contexts where small arms proliferate in the civil sphere, certain populations are disproportionately at risk, women chief among them.

Yes. Throughout the world, men are the clear majority of those using firearms and the victims of shootings in families are largely women. Meanwhile, men are also the majority of those shot and killed in public spaces, most often by acquaintances.  Disenfranchised communities in Israel/Palestine are also disproportionately at risk. For example, the policy of non-enforcement in Palestinian communities in Israel means that the perpetrators of gun crimes in these communities are rarely identified and prosecuted. In effect, this enables murders of Palestinian women by family or community members who are acting to enforce patriarchal control. At the same time, the lack of oversight regarding the arms of private security guards has enabled a series of murders at home with company guns and these victims tended to be women from immigrant communities – chiefly from Ethiopian or Russian backgrounds. Economic interests shared by the industry and the state have driven this trend.

RLS:  Mondoweiss readers follow the Israeli military occupation closely, but this is an aspect of the occupation that we don’t often hear about.  Would you argue that the proliferation of weapons in the Israeli civil sphere is indeed related to the dynamics of occupation?  How, precisely?

They are indeed interrelated, and in ways that most Israeli Jews don’t choose to understand.  Take recent trends, for example.  We’ve seen a steep rise in arms ownership, and calls to bear arms, following the October 2015 outbreak of attacks by individual Palestinians. We’ve also seen swift expansions in the eligibility criteria for obtaining a private gun license and a de facto nullification of the law barring security firms from sending guards home with company guns. The rising numbers of small arms are truly staggering.  Between October 2015 and May 2016, some 105,000 new civilian guns were licensed. And we can presume that tens of thousands of Israeli guards are now harboring guns in their homes again. All this amounts to a privatization of security, with the state effectively telling citizens: get a gun and protect yourselves. In the same vein, this period also saw a rise in official calls for shooting to kill perceived perpetrators – a practice common for years among soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories and police operating in Palestinian communities inside Israel. Though formerly condoned, it is now a declared policy and it has crossed the green line into Israel on a much larger scale.

The numbers of shooting deaths tell this story clearly. In the last quarter of 2015, the number was three times higher than in the last quarter of 2013.

RLS:  Adi Kuntsman and I have proposed that we think about the violence of military occupation as a kind of Israeli “public secret.” That is, although its pervasiveness is known to all Jewish citizens, its imprint on everyday Israeli society often goes willfully unacknowledged.  Is this also true of militarism and gun violence in Israeli society? 

I would say their threat is unacknowledged. The ubiquity of guns in the Israeli civil sphere, along with the popular perception that they have a mainly protective function, enables them to be unremarkable and unnoticed. In Israeli kindergartens, for example, classes host ‘adopted units’ of soldiers and the kids react to their rifles with both fear and excitement. But four-year-olds soon learn to unsee these guns – as when their older siblings enlist and bring them home routinely. Or when they pass by an armed guard at their school gate. Their parents don’t worry about having arms in schools, so why should they. In fact, during the research for this report, it was learned that parents’ associations are a major obstacle to disarming school guards despite serious doubts about the effectiveness of such guards. From a very young age, Israeli children learn that it is the external, threatening enemy that they should fear, not the gun.

A copy of the full report “Loose Guns: Israeli Controlled Small Arms in the Civil Sphere,” is available in Hebrew here, and summaries are published in English here, and in Arabic here  

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And then of course are the ones walking around with their phylacteries and nose buried in a prayer book – gun prominently holstered on their hip – these are the most frightening ones of them all.