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Israel's eased gun laws: Palestinian fear over new gun permits

Residents of the occupied West Bank fear increasing violence by settlers, as a result of Israel's relaxed gun laws.

by Tessa Fox

West Bank, Palestine - Mahmoud Ahmad Zaal Odeh was shot and killed by an Israeli settler while tending to his 30 dunums (7.5 acres) of farmland in Ras al-Nakleh, next to his home village of Qusra, south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank

Zaal Odeh was 46-years-old at the time of his death in November last year, and he left behind not only his wife but also seven children - four girls and three boys.

"If I was there I would have eaten him with my bare teeth," Manal Shekadeh Abdel Raziq, Zaal Odeh's widow told Al Jazeera.

"He was murdered on his land," she continued.

"The settler came and he was teasing my husband and breaking our vines."

"I think my husband was trying to reach something on the ground to hit him with and [the settler] shot him point blank, in his shoulder, and through his back."

Ahmed holds photos of his father Mahmoud who was shot and killed by an Israeli settler last November [Tessa Fox/Al Jazeera]

With the recent weakening of gun laws in Israel, many Palestinians fear that stories such as Mahmoud's will become more common, both in the West Bank and in Israel proper.

On August 20, Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced that more than half a million Israeli citizens will now be able to own guns without the need for regular training or special permits.

Erdan cited the need for civilians to respond to "terror attacks" as the reason behind the change.

"Qualified citizens carrying firearms in public contribute to the sense of security, are an important line of defence from 'lone-wolf' attacks and thus strengthen public security," Erdan said in a statement.

According to statistics by rights group B'Tselem, 29 Palestinians were killed by Israeli civilians across Israel and the West Bank in the last 10 years, while 84 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians.

The majority of these deaths on either side were from live ammunition.

The Yesha Council - the umbrella organisation for all settlement municipal councils - was contacted to comment on the change in Israel's gun laws but refused to speak to Al Jazeera.

Under earlier laws, in order to get a gun Israelis had to prove they needed one, for example, because they lived in an area considered dangerous - illegal settlements in the West Bank are defined as such.

According to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) National Bureau for Defending Land in Nablus, there are currently 145,000 Israelis in the West Bank who hold permits to carry guns.

With the weakening of the law, it is estimated 200,000 more settlers will now carry arms.

The new laws allow any veteran of the IDF infantry to obtain gun permits as well as police officers.

Given the mandatory conscription in Israel from the age of 18, these laws could eventually apply to the majority of the population.

On top of this, army personnel ranked first lieutenant or higher and non-commissioned officers ranked first sergeant or higher, will be allowed to keep their guns after service, no longer having to return them.

Fighting 'terrorism'

As a member of the Knesset (MK) for the Joint Arab List, Haneen Zoabi believes the change to Israel's gun law is just the latest in a series of measures against Palestinians. 

"While they have passed their nation-state law, it feels they can do anything without any consideration regarding democratic values [and] regarding equality between the citizens," MK Zoabi told Al Jazeera.

"In Israel, it's so easy to insist the Palestinian citizen is a terrorist," Zoabi said, referring to the stated reasons behind the new law.

"In the context of hatred and demonisation of Palestinians. They say, 'Ok, I know you don't like the Palestinians… so I legalise guns and permit you to have a gun," she said.

While the law will affect numbers inside Israel more greatly, the existing situation in the West Bank can be seen as an example of what is to come, now that all areas of Israel are deemed 'dangerous'.

"The political message of this procedure will have psychological and even practical implications," Zoabi explained.

"[Israelis] will feel more confident to shoot a Palestinian … and raise the potential to kill."

Zoabi said the weakening of the law would also affect the court system, which already systematically discriminates against Palestinians. 

"When you are in front of a judge, where an [Israeli] is shooting a Palestinian, after this [law], the judgement will differ very much, it's now more legal to shoot them," Zoabi said.

"Now Palestinians are defined legally as terrorists, and the one who has a gun is defined legally as one who has permission to kill."

Abdel Raziq of Qusra's experience resonates with this.

As the court case for her husband's death continues even 10 months later, she said the Israeli court is placing the blame on her husband and not the settler, even though the Israeli entered private property.

"The court is saying it was self-defence for the settler," Abdel Raziq said.

The family is still waiting on the autopsy report to be released though, according to Abdel Raziq, the Israeli police are withholding the documents.

"I feel very oppressed, they walk their own law. I don't think anything in our favour is going to happen with the court."

'Israelis already have an army'

While the number of civilian deaths is higher on the Israeli side than the Palestinian, MK Zoabi argues there is no comparison to make.

"The settlers in the West Bank don't need to shoot the Palestinians, there is an army that does that; they already have someone to do this dirty business for them," she said.

"The settlers are attacking and violating Palestinian ownership, they always have the Israeli army to defend the settlers. It's an extra, it's for fun and ideology, not for danger."

Zoabi refers back to Israeli settlers' violation of international law by residing in occupied territory.

"The settlers must not be there, they are endangering themselves." 

"No one has the right to come and take [Palestinian] lands, uproot their trees and say 'don't attack me, I have the right to be protected'. No, they're settlers, according to international law you don't have the right to be protected."

But B'Tselem spokesperson Amit Gilutz points out that even civilians settling in occupied territory should not be the targets of attacks.

"One of international law's main axis is the distinction between combatants and civilians," Gilutz said.

"Thus living in an occupied area, which in itself constitutes a violation of international law, does not make you a legitimate target if you are a civilian."

He went on to state that even if Palestinians carry out attacks on Israeli civilians first, the extrajudicial killing of Palestinians by Israelis is often unwarranted.

"Lethal force may only be used when facing imminent danger to you or to other people and when there is no other option," Gilutz said.

"Israeli security forces have been documented many times using lethal force with no justification, including against Palestinians who have carried out or attempted to carry an attack against them."

Even with the new laws, Abdel Raziq said she and her community do not feel any greater fear.

"We don't fear death. People die all the time. The community doesn't care. Either way, I'm not leaving my land."

The entrance to Manal Shekadeh Abdel Raziq’s home in Qusra, in the north of the West Bank, eternalises the death of her husband, Mahmoud Ahmad Zaal Odeh [Tessa Fox/Al Jazeera]

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SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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