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A feminist initiative in Israel is fighting to reduce gun ownership and tighten up gun laws

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Whether assault rifles, machine guns, or pistols, all arms large and small have the potential to maim and kill other human beings. Although boasting relatively strict gun laws, it is estimated that Israel still has nearly 300,000 private firearms in legal circulation, along with an unknown number of unlicensed firearms.The violence inflicted with them disproportionately impacts women, Palestinians, and other marginalized communities.

But not everyone in the country is taking these developments lying down. The Gun Free Kitchen Tables (GFKT) initiative advocates for stricter controls and the reduction of small arms in Israel and the Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories. A coalition of 20 feminist, civil society, and human rights organizations, GFKT conducts a wide range of activities, including independent investigations and inspections, legislative initiatives and political lobbying, but also civil suits to hold perpetrators accountable.

Juliane Drückler from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin spoke with one of the initiative’s co-founders and coordinators to learn more about their work.

Rela Mazali is a feminist scholar, author, and human rights activist, and a co-founder of the Gun Free Kitchen Tables initiative. 

This article first appeared in maldekstra #15.

First of all, what is the Gun Free Kitchen Table Initiative all about?

It’s a coalition of 20 civil society organizations, including women’s organizations, acting together to reduce the number of small arms and disarm, or at least partly disarm, the civil sphere in Israel and try to control the arms that are nevertheless circulating.

The coalition is hosted by the Isha L’Isha Feminist Center in Haifa, and is very feminist in its methodology. We share decision-making. We share work processes. We utilize different kinds of expertise and different kinds of capacities and grant space to different experiences. In this way, we maximize what the organizations are able to do because we work together.

Small arms are a particularly pressing issue in Israel. Why are there so many guns in the civil sphere?

It’s partly a result of the fact that there are so many soldiers in the civil sphere, many of whom bear arms. That normalizes small arms and makes them virtually invisible to a large extent — at least for a major part of society.Of course, for communities that experience discrimination, racism, and police brutality, the perception is different.

A lot of people assume that they’re only there for defence. That is one of the reasons why some people tend to overlook the terrible damage and real dangers and risks that are involved in small arms proliferation.

Another factor is that since 2000, there’s been a process of privatization of policing. There are many private security firms. That wasn’t the case before 2000. It has been a neoliberal process of privatizing policing, with exploitative work contracts and usually marginalized workers.

There are also multiple armed civilian groups. Many communities are allowed to own and distribute arms to the people living in them if they’re considered to be in “danger zones”. Some commercial companies are allowed to have arms at their disposal for self-defence, such as Coca-Cola. Government offices, courts, and the Ministry of Justice are all equipped with armed guards. Of course, Jewish settlers in so-called “danger zones” are automatically granted civilian licenses, and often also carry military arms because their settlements are treated as military outposts.

Then there is a large number of unlicensed arms. I don’t refer to them as “illegal” necessarily, because a majority of these arms were recently licensed. They were stolen and sold illegally. They find their way into the unlicensed store of arms, which is quite big, although there are no clear official estimates of exactly how big it is.

A lot of these unlicensed arms are among the Palestinian community in Israel, and specifically in the hands of organized criminal groups. This is because Palestinian citizens of Israel are often refused a gun license. They have a harder time getting gun licenses unless they have served in one of the security forces or have been trained as security guards.

More importantly, Palestinian society was under-policed for many years. There was under-enforcement, quite systematically and probably intentional, and that enabled particular groups within Palestinian society to become strongmen. This was convenient for the needs of a colonialist government that wanted to retain a hold over the communities by proxy. Some of these groups passed on information, they denounced particular people as troublemakers, and in return, the state didn’t enforce gun laws.

This went on for decades. In recent years, it has spiralled out of control, and the government is now supposedly acting to reverse the situation because there’s a huge problem with gun crime and criminal organizations operating within Palestinian society in Israel.

Are the effects from licensed and unlicensed weapons different?

To some extent, but not completely. First of all, we know that very large numbers of licensed weapons are stolen, mostly apparently from the army and the police and security firms, but also from private homes. About 200 guns are stolen from civilian sources per year. So the status of these weapons as licensed or unlicensed is constantly changing, hence I don’t want to overstate the different impacts.

In addition, in both societies — Jewish and Palestinian — there has been a dramatic rise of injuries and deaths resulting from shooting over the past few years. In Jewish society, the figure was over 50 percent from 2017 to 2020. In Palestinian society, the rise in injuries and deaths resulting from shootings was over 70 percent over the same period. So, there’s a difference, but there’s a serious rise in both societies, and it can’t all be ascribed only to illegal or unregistered arms. One third of women shot and killed over the past few years were shot with registered arms.

GFKT’s work is grounded in a feminist analysis of militarization and its effects on human security. What does that mean, especially when compared to a traditional analysis of militarization?

A feminist analysis looks at disempowered groups and various power structures. It’s not only about gender equality. It includes an understanding that the groups most affected by gun crime are marginalized groups — first and foremost Palestinian citizens. In 2015, an investigative report cited 51 police killings of Palestinian citizens since 2000.

Another heavily affected group are people with mental illness, particularly if this intersects with marginalized identities. There have been five or six police killings of mental health patients in the past three to four years. So a feminist analysis tries to take into account the experiences and realities of groups that are overlooked in traditional analysis. When it comes to police violence, a feminist analysis considers the fact that people of Ethiopian descent are much more affected than white Ashkenazi middle-class citizens.

Feminist analysis looks at groups that are disempowered or not listened to, whose experiences aren’t valued and aren’t considered knowledge. We try to mine this knowledge. For instance, on our website we have a form enabling people to send in testimonies about their personal experiences with small arms anonymously. This is a way of building knowledge from people’s lived experience. A feminist analysis doesn’t limit itself to top-down statistics and analysis and polls and big data. Those viewpoints have their value, but they miss the human element, the eye-level element of living with guns around us.

What does GFKT do regarding independent monitoring and fact-finding, or interventions for preventive legislation and civil suits?

We propose preventive, responsible legislation. We don’t want legislation that only deals with what happens after a law is broken. Our slogan is “We don’t know who she is, but we know we can save her life.” There are structural changes that would literally save lives.

We collect information in order to produce reflective statistics or a reflective look at the ongoing process. A big part of the lack of control of small arms in Israel is the fact that the state collects information very selectively and very poorly, so sometimes we do it for a short period of time. For instance, we gathered the figure that I mentioned earlier about one third of women killed in recent years with licensed guns. That’s a result of our data collection, nobody else does those kinds of statistics.

We also engage in legal action. For instance, the eligibility criteria for gun licenses were dramatically expanded in 2018, so we petitioned the High Court of Justice. The court case is still ongoing. It looks like the court is going to close the case, but we did make some headway. We achieved that the decision on eligibility criteria for gun licensing will no longer be made exclusively by a government minister, but has to be debated in a Knesset committee. It’s not likely that this will result in tougher criteria, but at least it will be a transparent, democratic debate.

In the past, we filed civil lawsuits against the state for negligence in enforcing the law regarding the safe storage of security guards’ guns after working hours, and we won — the rulings forced the state and private security firms to pay damages for their negligence in enforcing the law. Unfortunately, now there is a change underway making it legal for the Minister for Public Security to decide whether guards can be sent home with their guns.

In those two years when we succeeded in getting the government to enforce the law that guns should be collected and stored after duty, killings in homes and families with security firms’ guns stopped. Until then, there were roughly three killings per year for eleven years. After the government renewed the permission to send a guard home with their gun, the killing started again. Now we see one or two cases per year.

Feminist methodology is important here, too. The general understanding was that those were isolated cases, but if you look at who is affected by those shootings, you come to understand that this is a phenomenon that largely affects women from marginalized communities.

What is frustrating is that the government still frames it as a measure to keep people safe, when in fact the main motives behind sending guns home are probably economic. It’s the company’s profits that would be hit if they had to collect guns, make sure they were stored safely, and possibly pay guards for extra travel to bring the gun to a safe place, etc. It’s not only the company’s profits, it’s also government expenditure, because a lot of security guards are employed as subcontractors by the government.

It’s tragic that those economic considerations are exchanged for people’s lives. In the past three years, 28 guards have committed suicide with their guns. Meanwhile, the government exploits attacks to claim that we need guns in the civil sphere to protect us.

There was a huge rise in applications for private gun licenses after the last Gaza war and the violence in Israel and Palestine in May 2021. What does that mean for the dynamics in Israeli society, and for your work more broadly?

After May and now again in the last two or three weeks, there were huge spikes in applications for civilian gun licenses. It means we’ll see even more of what we’ve seen in the past few years.

Last week, there was an incident where a mentally ill person with a toy gun tried to grab a soldier’s gun and was shot dead — executed by an off-duty military officer. According to reports, there were even more shots fired by other civilians.

We’re at a point where we can still stop it to some extent, but the people who make the decisions are refusing to stop it. For our work, it means that we go on trying to reverse decisions or change laws and raise public consciousness about the price we’re paying. Attacks get a lot of public attention, but those shootings are sometimes not reported at all. We need to raise consciousness and keep building the anti-militarization movement, even beyond the GFKT coalition.

The movement that we created wasn’t there ten years ago, but it is now. It’s visible — not enough, but it’s visible. It’s quite strong, something of a household name, and it includes many civil society organizations. On the eve of Passover, 45 civil society organizations from a very broad spectrum of political affiliations — Jewish, Palestinian, secular, Orthodox, large organizations, small organizations ؅— issued an urgent call to the Prime Minister to stop the small arms race. This hadn’t happened before. It was bigger than the coalition.

When the media reports about attacks and civilians stepping in with their guns to save the day, there is always a narrative of heroism involved. Is there a counter-narrative that could be introduced?

It exists, but it’s unpopular. It’s so easy to admire heroism. The narratives of heroism are so much a part of militarized society, and definitely of this one. This is part of what we’re working against.

I was on the radio two days ago, and I talked about this recent shooting of a mentally ill person. The interviewer said, “Well, what do you expect? He was trying to get a gun away from a soldier.” I said, “If the person who intervened was competent in policing the civil sphere, the victim should not have been killed. He might have been shot, but he should not have been killed. He should have been apprehended.”

This week, the High Court of Justice issued a ruling to a Palestinian family that was trying to pursue the case of their son, who was shot dead while stealing a car and trying to escape. The court dismissed the case, but it did state in its ruling that the open-fire regulations were not satisfactory, that they should be stricter and this shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

Part of the militarization of our society and the consequences of that is already somewhat the norm in the West Bank or in Gaza, when Israeli soldiers shoot at Palestinians and kill them for whatever reason and say they felt their lives were in danger. They get off, they aren’t punished in any way. This sense of impunity is now taking hold inside Israel as well. There is a counter-narrative pointing to those dangers, not only from us, but also from officials and celebrities. They are unpopular, they’re marginalized, they’re dismissed. But still, we keep them going.

You said Israeli society can still win the small arms race, but would have to act quickly. What would have to happen?

Reverse the civilian gun licensing criteria to what they were several years ago — they weren’t good, but they were better. Collect and store security guard guns. Disarm some of the guards, because not all guards need to be armed, and issue directives that make it very clear that licensed civilians cannot open fire at their discretion.

Change the laws, like making gun-licensing dependent on the consent of the applicant’s partner and usually their family members and surroundings, and enforce the laws! Some of the laws are okay, but oversight is very loose and very lax.

Together with our Palestinian sister activists, the GFKT initiative wrote a whole programme of what needs to be done in order to roll back gun crime inside Israel. They are not part of the coalition, because, as they say, their reality is quite different, but we work very closely with each other. Some of those suggestions were adopted by the committee of mayors.

If you could outline a feminist utopia, what would society look like without small arms?

It would look much more peaceful. The means of protecting and enforcing would be nonviolent. I can’t say “nonthreatening” — when a group of law enforcement officers encircles someone in order to calm them down and stop their actions, there is some degree of threat in that — but they’re not threatening their life.

It would be inclusive. It would be egalitarian. It would be safe for women. It would be safe for people of colour. It would be safe for Palestinians here in this country.

It would share resources so that people would be less desperate. It would enable people to live in dignity without resorting to force. There will always be anger among people, but even anger can be dignified and contained and channelled into productive means.