NABLUS, West Bank – The Palestinian fighter ran a finger approvingly over the cold metal of the assault rifle, embossed with the seal of the Israeli army. He squinted at the lettering in Hebrew, a language he learned in prison, and read, “Made in Israel.”
“I bought it yesterday,” said the fighter, Majid el Masri, part of a militia affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s Fatah political party. “I paid $6,000. I used to have an M-16, American made. That was better for targeting, but this is not bad.”
In fact, the gun, made by Israel Military Industries, manufacturer of the Uzi, is the standard weapon distributed to the rank-and-file soldiers of the Israeli army. Exactly how it found its way to Nablus, where Masri intends to use it against Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers, is the source of increasing concern to Israelis as the Palestinian uprising veers into guerrilla warfare.
Thousands of weapons, illegal under the terms of the 1993 peace accords – rifles, machine guns, land mines, grenades, mortar shells, antiaircraft and antitank guns and possibly artillery – have been smuggled into the West Bank and Gaza and are providing dangerous fuel for the current wave of violence.
The Palestinians are not bashful about their guns, parading them proudly at demonstrations, funerals and even weddings. Even Arafat appeared last week in public carrying a submachine gun, an odd accessory for a political leader always surrounded by bodyguards.
All these guns have made the current intifadah much deadlier than the six-year uprising that ended in 1993, in which the weapon of choice was the rock. And Israeli intelligence officials say the new arsenal could be a stockpile for a bigger battle in the future.
The Israeli fear is that the Palestinians will amass enough of an arsenal to develop a homegrown version of Hezbollah, the anti-Israeli guerrilla movement based in Lebanon and nurtured by Iran and Syria.
For example, Israeli intelligence believes the Palestinians have acquired artillery, possibly even the Russian-made Katyusha rockets favored by Hezbollah.
“We are talking about small numbers [of rockets], but they pose a very serious problem if they send one into an [army] post or a settlement from four kilometers away,” said a senior Israeli military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In Nablus, Palestinian fighters boast that in early October they forced the Israeli army to abandon Joseph’s tomb, a Jewish shrine and yeshiva that had been an irritant to Palestinian self-rule in the city.
“With a couple of M-16s, we pushed them right out. We know we won’t be as strong as Hezbollah. We don’t have Iran and Syria to help us, but we have enough military equipment for what we need to do, if we choose the time and use guerrilla tactics,” Masri said.
In any Palestinian city, it takes only one or two queries to find directions to somebody who is selling guns. A merchant in Ramallah, working near the fruit and vegetable market, quoted prices starting at $900 for a used Egyptian-made rifle and rising into the thousands for an M-16 or a Kalashnikov.
“There are hundreds of different ways to get guns if you have enough money. And people here will do anything to get one,” Masri said. “He’ll take his entire life savings or sell his wife’s gold.”
Under the 1993 Oslo peace agreements, which set up limited Palestinian self-rule, the Palestinians were given 15,000 guns and pistols, 240 machine guns, armored personnel carriers, and other equipment to build their police force. Israel itself provided some of the weapons. Contrary to the claims of some Israeli right-wingers, Israeli military intelligence does not believe the police weapons are being used extensively to attack Israelis, according to an Israeli intelligence source.
The bigger concern is illegal weapons, most of them in the hands of Fatah militias known as the Tanzim, Arabic for apparatus, and a smaller number with groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
These weapons come from a variety of sources. Some were in the hands of Palestine Liberation Organization fighters long before the peace process, some dating back to the British Mandate before the 1930s. Other guns were stolen from Israeli army bases or from the homes of reserve soldiers. Bedouins, nomadic Arabs – some of whom serve in the Israeli army – have been implicated in some of the thefts. Israeli soldiers, too, have been caught selling their own weapons.
A far larger number of weapons are smuggled in from outside Israel. Hussam Khader, an outspoken Nablus politician who frequently complains of Palestinian corruption, says Palestinian officials have used their diplomatic protection to bring in guns.
“Before the uprising, the VIPs had a real opportunity to trade in guns. They would buy them for $200 from Iraq, bring them across the Allenby bridge [from Jordan], and sell them for a very nice profit in Nablus,” Khader said.
Some members of the Israeli parliament have charged that Arafat himself is smuggling weapons and ammunition when he flies into Gaza. The airplane assigned to Arafat’s official use is the only Palestinian aircraft that is not inspected by Israeli authorities. But the Israeli intelligence official said the evidence of Arafat’s involvement was inconclusive.
“We have seen a rush of airfield workers converging in a suspicious manner on his plane when it lands,” the official said.
Smuggling weapons into Gaza is an adventurous business because, unlike the West Bank, Gaza is cordoned off by an electrical fence and walls. Usually weapons come in from Egypt, either in fishing boats or in tunnels dug around Rafah, the southern border crossing into Gaza.
“The sand is soft, so they can dig a tunnel in a couple of days. There are a lot of houses on the border, so they start from somebody’s living room and go to the other side,” said Gal Luft, a former Israeli army officer who was stationed in Rafah and now writes extensively on weapons.
The smugglers often use oil barrels with the ends removed to line their tunnels – making pipelines for guns, drugs or other contraband.
“Anything they bring in has to be relatively small. It is difficult for them to smuggle in big military items,” Luft said.
Other weapons are discovered closer to home.
The Israeli army believes the Palestinians have thousands of antitank mines, which were dug up from Sinai around the former confrontation lines between Israel and Egypt, according to the army intelligence official. Other explosives are manufactured in garages or small factories, usually by Hamas guerrillas.
The Palestinians certainly have mortar shells: A 120mm mortar shell was used to make a roadside bomb in the Nov. 20 attack against an Israeli school bus in Gaza. What is unclear is whether the Palestinians also have mortars to launch the shells.
Much of the Israeli information about the Palestinian arsenal comes from footage on Palestinian television of parades and funerals. The Israeli army was alarmed to spot what looked like an antitank missile in a recent demonstration. Military sources say the Palestinians also have small numbers of grenade launchers, rocket-propelled grenades, wire-guided antitank missiles, and Russian-made antiaircraft guns.
Kamal al Sheikh, Ramallah’s police chief, ridicules the Israelis for complaining so profusely about illegal weapons held by Palestinians.
“The Israelis have the most powerful army in the Middle East. They are capable of taking on the whole region, and they tell us they are afraid of a few hundred guns,” al Sheikh said.
But it is almost certain, Israeli sources say, that the Palestinians have a far deadlier arsenal than they have actually used. So far, the weapons deployed in clashes are limited to guns, Molotov cocktails, and the weapon always in plentiful supply, the rock. Israeli helicopters over Gaza fly in zigzagging formations, on the assumption that they could be targets for antiaircraft guns, but so far none have been turned against them.
Israeli intelligence says Arafat is stockpiling weapons with the belief that he will need them if Israel tries to reoccupy the parts of the West Bank and Gaza turned over through the peace agreements.
“They haven’t used a lot of the capabilities that they have. Arafat doesn’t want to play this game one-on-one with the Israeli army right now,” Luft said. “They want to keep the appearance of a popular uprising.”
The Palestinians also could be running short of ammunition as a result of the closures tightened by the Israelis around the borders of the West Bank and Gaza.
“At the beginning of this, people were going out into the street and firing like crazy at weddings, at funerals. But you don’t see that anymore, and that tells you they have a problem with ammunition,” Luft said.
The subject of illegal Palestinian weapons has become highly political, with many conservative Israelis saying the proliferation of guns should be reason to cancel the peace agreements.
For their part, Palestinian officials say Israel has failed to appreciate the efforts they have made to keep the weapons they were given under Oslo out of the wrong hands and to restrict illegal weapons.
“This is for the benefit of the Palestinian Authority itself, not just to Israel, not to allow anybody to carry a weapon,” said al Sheikh, the Ramallah police chief.
This article ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 18, 2000
Barbara Demick’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.