Israelis queue to buy guns in aftermath of Hamas attacks

In a suburb of the Israeli city of Kefar Sava, gunshots rang out on a quiet Friday from firearms practice at a nearby shooting range. And in the city of Holon, a queue snakes around a building as Israelis lined up to buy guns.

Firearms sales have surged among Jewish Israelis since October 7, when civilians were forced to fight off Palestinian Hamas militants while waiting for the army to respond to a cross-border raid that claimed 1,400 Israeli lives, according to Israeli authorities.

The deadliest attack within the country since 1948 shattered Israelis’ sense of security and triggered a war between Israel and Hamas that has inflamed tensions across the region.

At the gun store in Holon, a group inside watched safety videos while a harried clerk rang up sales for new Smith & Wesson handguns, having run out of the perennial favourite — the 9mm Glock nicknamed “Masada” after a fortress where a Roman Legion crushed a Jewish resistance that fought to the death in 73AD.

Since the October 7 attacks, in which more than 200 people were also taken hostage by Hamas, Israelis have applied for so many firearms licences that the Nation Security Ministry has added dozens of staff to approve them. Nearly 10,000 new applications were lodged in the first week alone, the Jerusalem Post reported.

The minister of national security, the far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir, has promised to hand out 10,000 free weapons — 4,000 of them rifles — to settlers in the occupied West Bank, and has relaxed rules for permits so that 400,000 new people would qualify to carry a firearm.

Adult civilian residents of the city of Sderot, which was attacked by Hamas and has since been evacuated, would automatically qualify to buy a gun, Ben-Gvir said.

Ben-Gvir carries a firearm himself, and was once filmed brandishing it at a Palestinian man who was heckling him. His office last week released a photograph of the minister, smiling in front of a rack of rifles.

Palestinians — both those living within Israel’s 1948 borders, and those in the West Bank — fear these weapons will be used against them, given the anger and fear among Israelis since the October 7 attacks.

In the West Bank, some Palestinians have already been shot by settlers since the October 7 attacks. At least 91 Palestinians have been killed there, including six on Sunday, in a combination of clashes with Israeli troops, arrest raids and settler attacks, said the Palestinian health ministry. That came as Israel bombarded the Gaza strip in retaliation for the Hamas assault, killing more than 4,700 people, according to Palestinian health officials.

“If I try to buy a gun, I will never get a licence,” said Ahmed, a 48-year old barber in Jaffa. “But if [a Jewish Israeli] wants one, they will give it to him for free.”

Firearms sales in Israel have been highly restricted for decades, and had dropped from 185,000 in 2009 to fewer than 150,000 in 2021. At the same time, a healthy black market of guns stolen from the army has thrived on sales to both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis ineligible to buy guns legally.

After an 11-day war with Hamas in 2021 — which was accompanied by widespread communal violence between Palestinians with Israeli nationality and Jews living in mixed cities — some 20,000 gun licenses were granted, nearly twice as many as in the year before, according to the National Security Ministry.

However, the managers of three gun shops in Israel said the latest surge in ownership was unprecedented. Queues have been so long that shops have stayed open for extra hours, and in one case, opened on the Jewish sabbath.

At the gun store in Holon, Dov Krauser, 75, had brought his third handgun in to be serviced, and has stocked up on ammunition. His oiled and shiny Smith & Wesson tucked into a concealed waistband holster, he said he had had a licence for 50 years, but until now had never bothered to carry his weapon, or had to use it.

“You saw what happened here in Israel,” he said. “I want it just for security, just in case, to be safe.”

Krauser said he lived in Petah Tikva, a small industrial suburb of Tel Aviv that is far from the border with Gaza. He said he hoped he would never need to use his weapon, but for the sake of security had also bought one for his wife.

Nicolas Livick, 41, said he had never owned a weapon since he left the army — having worked for the military in Gaza between 2000 and 2003 — but he had applied for a new license and queued for two hours to buy his own handgun.

His home in Rishon Lezion is also far from the border, but close to Ramle and Lod. “These are Israeli cities, but a lot of Arabs live there,” he said. In 2021, he remembers rioting in which cars were burnt and gunfire exchanged between residents.

Livick considered buying a gun after that unrest, but now, he said, “I realised I couldn’t wait any more.”