From June 6 to 8, 2017, Israel held its eighth annual International Defense and Homeland Security Exhibition (ISDEF) in Tel Aviv. In the run up to the event, the conference was billed as the largest international defense and security expo ever to be held in Israel. According to the event website, the expo aimed to show how Israel had achieved its “well-earned worldwide reputation as a key player in the global defense and security market.” In the end, approximately 15,000 visitors from over ninety countries attended the conference, eager to hear about Israel’s military industry, its newest technologies, and arms trade with other countries.
One issue left unacknowledged and unaddressed by the conference, however, is the militarization of Israeli society, particularly in the form of tens of thousands of military-grade weapons carried in civilian spaces. Military officers, who are almost always armed, roam the streets like ordinary civilians in Israel. They can be seen in bus stations, malls, restaurants, beaches, and universities. According to statistics, there are between 6,700 to 20,000 military-owned assault rifles in the public sphere, which are categorized as ‘small arms.’ 10,000 of these are M16s and Tavors. Under the country’s firearms laws, private citizens can also carry weapons.
The sight of these weapons, whether carried by young, uniformed soldiers or Israeli settlers, helps perpetuate a sense of constant alert, which has existed since before Israel was even founded in 1948. While these guns may help some Israelis (mostly Jewish and male) feel safe, many others live in a state of anxiety and insecurity, namely women and Palestinians.
Israeli Firearms Laws
The Firearms Act 5709-1949 is the central Israeli law controlling small arms in the public sphere. In addition to military and police personnel, the law allows civilians as young as twenty one, and, in special cases, eighteen-years-old, to own and carry weapons, with authorization from the Ministry of Public Security.
Although the law distinguishes between arms owned by civilians and arms issued to security forces, the distinction can sometimes be vague. For example, military order 1955 allows soldiers to carry their assault rifles outside of military bases, including during their vacations and weekends at home. This helps to erase the division between soldiers and civilians in the public sphere. It also reinforces a sense of constant war, as well as the hybridized civilian-military nature of society in Israel.
The Firearms Act, together with related military orders, reflects the ethno-supremacist politics of the “Jewish state.” Although the Firearms law does not specify the racial identity of the holder, it grants firearm licenses to supervisors of Israeli settlements. The law does not, however, grant this type of license to mayors of cities or to council heads in Arab townships and villages. The privileging of Israeli settlements clearly indicates who is and who is not allowed to hold firearms licenses, and points to precisely which individuals/ethno-national groups are entitled to enjoy a sense of security.
The bearing of arms in the public sphere, then, has helped to further divide people in Israel/Palestine into two categories: those for whom guns are a source of safety (primarily Jewish-Israelis); and those for whom guns are a threat (mainly Palestinian citizens of Israel or Palestinian residents of the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem). This has helped perpetuate a political, social, and economic hierarchy, in which one “race” – Jewish Israelis – are in firm control, while another “race”— the Palestinians—are subordinated.
For Palestinians, guns are a daily threat that can be used against them, whenever it is deemed necessary by an armed, Jewish Israeli. For example, during the recent “wave of violence,” which erupted throughout Israel/Palestine beginning in October 2015 (sometimes referred to as the “Jerusalem Intifada”), several unarmed Palestinians were shot and even killed in various public spaces, including central bus stations, simply because Jewish Israelis felt that they were behaving suspiciously.
Penetrating Public Sphere
The presence of so many firearms in the public sphere also creates a gender hierarchy that reinforces dynamics of dominance and submission in Israeli society. Indeed, a new report published by Israeli feminist organization, Isha L’Isha, argues, that the presence of firearms in the public sphere is causing social harm, particularly to women. As the report details, rifles have been used to commit various crimes, including femicide. According to figures published in Haaretz, of 131 women killed between 2011-2017, 28% were murdered with a firearm.
From a cultural perspective, the assault rifle is a symbol of Israeli masculinity particularly associated with male soldiers. Although female Israeli soldiers also bear arms in public, the rifle affirms masculine domination, the penetration of human flesh, and virility. In fact, female Israeli soldiers can often be seen “manspreading” on public transportation in order to make room for their assault rifles, as if they were a part of their own bodies.
An Abiding Sense of Insecurity
Firearms force themselves upon others, leaving no way of ignoring them– much like sharing an unrequested “dick-pic” on social media. They dictate how the ‘other’ should be seated on a bus and how they should act. Those armed also threaten, at any moment, to turn on people in public spaces, if they dare fall out of line. In these ways, firearms impose clear physical, social, and emotional boundaries that symbolically rape civilian life.
Israelis may be congratulating themselves for having such “big guns.”But, the rest of us are hoping they will be cleared away soon so we can have some peace of mind.