Over the last week, the IDF detained one Palestinian suspected of arms trafficking near the city of Nablus.
"The soldiers located and confiscated an illegal M-16 rifle which was found in the suspect's vehicle," the IDF said. In another incident, military ammunition was stolen from an IDF base in northern Israel. Recent clashes with armed Palestinians in the West Bank have revealed the presence of numerous illegal weapons, including a large number of M-16s pictured in photographs of the Palestinian gunmen or in videos of armed men gathered in places like Jenin and Nablus.
The presence of illegal firearms in the West Bank among Palestinians is not a new phenomenon. Terrorists use rifles and pistols in terror attacks and armed groups or gangs of various types use them to exert pressure or to show off. However, the last year has illustrated how the presence of weapons in the West Bank can lead to an increase in clashes.
Weapons in the West Bank lead to clashes
In late October, the UN Mideast envoy said that 2022 would likely be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since at least 2005. Tor Wennesland said that "mounting hopelessness, anger and tension have once again erupted into a deadly cycle of violence that is increasingly difficult to contain."
By the end of October, around 125 Palestinians had been killed. It was not clear how many of them were killed in armed clashes.
Among the groups involved in clashes this year was the Lions' Den group in Nablus. The gunmen turned themselves over to the Palestinian Authority in October after pressure from Israel's security forces. Several of the group's commanders had been killed, including Tamer al-Kilani and Wadi al-Houh, that latter was shot by Israeli troops during a raid on a bomb factory in the Old City of Nablus. One photo of the group shows half a dozen of its members armed with M-16s. At the same time, Israel's Operation Break the Wave has resulted in more than 1,500 arrests. In some of the operations, illegal weapons have been seized.
In reviewing the last several months of incidents it became clear that many Palestinian gunmen use M-16s and they often pose with this type of rifle. This appears to be a pattern. For instance, a photo of Farouk Salame, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad member who was killed in early November, shows him posing with thirteen M-16s. He staged the photo to make it look like the throne from Game of Thrones, adorned with rifles instead of swords. In another photo Wadi al-Houh is also seen with a similar style rifle.
It's difficult to quantify how many illegal firearms there are in the West Bank or how prevalent they are with terror groups or other armed men. The photos may show a tip of an iceberg or they may disproportionately show men who have access to rare weapons. What is clear is that in most of the recent photos of Palestinian gunmen, the weapons are common. The men also often pose with numerous rifles. During nationalist parades, such as funerals, the weapons are also common. One man killed in mid-October is seen in a photo with five M-16s.
The types of rifles matter.
This is because photos from more than a decade ago of Palestinian terror groups don't show such a prevalance of the kinds of rifles we see today. In fact, AK-47s, for instance, are more common in older photos and also in photos of gunmen in the Gaza Strip. For instance photos of Zakaria Zubeidi, the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade member, show him greeting supports in 2004 and the supporters have a mix of weapons.
There also doesn't appear to be an attempt to hide these weapons. A photo of the clothes that Salame was supposed to have worn on his wedding day-a week after he was killed-shows an M16 hanging from a window. A photo of a 15-year old Palestinian killed on November 9 show him with three M-16-style rifles.
The photos of the rifles lead to many questions. One obvious question is where do the weapons come from? The IDF releases details on detaining illegal weapons. In early November three suspects, two men from southern Israel and one Palestinian from the West Bank, were arrested attempting to smuggle handguns from Jordan. Weapons were also seized on November 9. These included pistols and pieces of AK-47s, as well as an old shotgun. On November 10 more weapons were seized, including an M-16.
Despite the military attempting to crack down on weapons smuggling, sources have told The Jerusalem Post that the years without a strong barrier between Israel and the West Bank allowed for a significant amount of weapons to flow into the hands of gunmen. "There was a lot of smuggling, you can just imagine what went through," one source said, adding that "now we have to fix those years of mistakes."
Nevertheless, guns and automatic weapons continue to make their way into the hands of Palestinian gunmen via Hezbollah in Lebanon or smuggling routes in the Jordan Valley. Those weapons usually originate from Syria or Iraq. Other weapons are stolen from IDF bases or other areas inside Israel and then smuggled into the West Bank through holes in the security fence. Palestinians have also locally produced arms, including M-16 styles and not only the Carl-Gustav submachine gun.
But with the IDF cracking down on weapons smuggling there has been a dramatic 300-400% increase in the price of ammunition and weapons. If for example, a bullet for an M-16 used to cost NIS 3, it now costs NIS 20. According to the source, the price for an M-16 has also skyrocketed. One M-16 can cost between $30,000-$40,000, which not many can afford. Yet, the cost of these weapons are usually funded by terror groups including Hamas which continues to funnel money into the West Bank to promote and carry out acts of terror.
The rising costs lead to questions about the types of weapons in the photographs and videos. In our initial attempt to investigate this question it became clear that many organizations do not monitor the illegal weapons trade in the West Bank or take note of the presence of firearms. This would appear to be an overlooked problem, especially considering that a plethora of human rights groups, international organizations and governments are active in the West Bank and Palestinian Authority areas.
If armed terror groups or independent armed groups of gunmen are more well-armed then the Palestinian Security Forces, this would present a threat to the security of the PA and of Israel.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. Anna Ahronheim is the military reporter for the Jerusalem Post.