In the mid-1990s, “Don’t give them guns!” was one of the most worn-out chants hurled at Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after he signed the Oslo Accords with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, helping to establish the Palestinian Authority and its foreign-funded security forces. Though not the most severe of slogans — “Death to Arafat” and the classic “Death to Arabs” were leading the charts back then — that particular line stuck with me. Many Israelis at the time were terrified that the weapons being handed to the Palestinians, the people they had violently oppressed for decades, would be turned against them. If they only knew.
During those Oslo years, my friends and I would regularly listen to a Tupac song which included the lyric “Give ‘em guns, step back, and watch ‘em kill each other.” Although the rapper was talking about Black communities in the United States, the words resonated with young Palestinians like us. Back then, my hometown of Lyd, a binational city located in what is today central Israel, was in the midst of a crime epidemic, and was described by the Israeli media and the Israeli police as the “drug capital of the Middle East.” The town certainly had lots of guns, and we were notorious for our sky-high murder rates. My childhood memories of the ’90s are filled with painful stories of people who lost friends and family members. Later, the inevitable happened and I, too, would have my own story.
As we grew older, the story of the “gun-infested” Palestinian community in Lyd, which continues to this day, became the story of all Palestinian towns and villages in ‘48 (Israel). Murder rates are breaking records every year, with 80 Palestinian citizens killed so far since January, the vast majority by firearms. Gun Free Kitchen Table, a leading coalition that works on this issue, estimates that Palestinian citizens today may have more unlicensed firearms — most of which came from the Israeli military’s stockpiles — than those registered by the Israeli army, police, private security companies, and settlers combined (in 2013, those numbers were about 400,000 compared to 330,000, respectively, and are certainly higher today).
The outbreak of this gun epidemic happened for a reason. Shocked by the mass protests of Palestinian citizens at the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 — during which police shot dead 13 Palestinians in Israel and wounded hundreds more — the Israeli establishment sought to counter the national uprising, and the threat of a future one, by weakening the community’s social fabric. A key way to do this — much like with Black communities in the United States — was to force Palestinian citizens of Israel to focus most their energies on internal “social problems.”
In the following years, Israeli police and intelligence services allowed and even nurtured an abundance of illegal firearms in these towns. Some police officials have even begun openly admitting that they are unable to combat violent gun crime today because many weapons owners, including major crime organizations, are collaborating with and being “protected” by the Shin Bet. But the strategy paid off: according to numerous polls over the past few years, Palestinian citizens’ number one policy concern was not Israel’s occupation nor its racist laws, but crime and gun violence in their towns and villages.
Arm of apartheid
The idea of putting guns into the hands of Palestinians and “watch ‘em kill each other” is being applied in full force in the West Bank, too. Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority made a pact with the Israeli establishment to preserve what President Mahmoud Abbas described as “sacred” security coordination: a collaborative system that allows the PA and the Israeli army to arrest, suppress, and even kill any Palestinian who is perceived as a threat by Israel.
This pact isn’t just perceived as a crime against Palestinian resistance; it is a humiliation of the entire Palestinian people. I remember when, about 10 years ago, I went to the West Bank city of Ramallah with my dad to fix my old, beat up Peugeot. My dad had struck a friendship with a newly freed Palestinian prisoner who had been released from jail after 14 years. An academic and engineer who worked well with his hands, he decided to start his post-prison life by opening a car shop in Ramallah.
As we conversed with him, we heard shouting and loud noises outside. We looked out and saw a Palestinian police motorcade speeding down the road, with Israeli army jeeps following them. They stopped right across the street from us. The armed Palestinian officers stayed in their vehicles, while the Israeli soldiers stormed the nearby building.
Our friend, the mechanic, stopped working on the car and quietly walked to the backroom to hide, as if it were a regular procedure. Four minutes later, the Israeli soldiers came out of the building with a handcuffed, blindfolded young man. Once the soldiers and officers were out of sight, the mechanic silently walked back to the front of the shop to resume work.
My dad and I stood there, mouths agape, in complete shock. Our friend was much more composed compared to my visible rage, but I knew what was going on in his head. “Sorry for disappearing,” he said while dismantling my back wheel, ever so calmly. “But this is how my 14 years in Israeli prison started.” My dad thanked him and expressed solidarity with some polite, traditional Arabic phrases. But we knew that we were all humiliated, as Palestinians, that a scene like that could happen in broad daylight in the middle of downtown Ramallah.
Just when we thought the PA’s betrayal of its people couldn’t get any worse, their brutal behavior has escalated. The killing of activist Nizar Banat by PA forces two months ago became the opening act of a mass detention campaign against anyone who criticizes Abbas and his cronies. Dozens of prominent figures — some of whom were former prisoners or administrative detainees in Israeli jails, like Khader Adnan — were arrested by the PA, with many of them severely beaten. To add insult to injury, the PA even asked Israel for more “crowd control supplies” to “suppress the protests” — code for more weapons to be fired against their own people.
Faced with local and international pressure, the PA announced this week that they are charging 14 members of its security force for their alleged involvement in Banat’s killing. But this show trial shouldn’t fool anyone: the PA has openly declared war on the Palestinian people. We used to say that the PA functioned as “subcontractors” for the occupation, doing its dirty work in the West Bank. We need to change this phrasing: the PA isn’t merely a collaborator, it is the occupation itself.
As crime in ’48 worsens and the PA becomes more open about who it actually serves and protects, I think back to that chant of “Don’t give them guns!” and how, today, Israelis are singing a very different tune. From Lyd to Ramallah, the Palestinians who aim their guns at other Palestinians — whether youth, criminal gangs, or security officers — are effectively operating as a direct arm of the Israeli apartheid system, targeting their own people to keep the regime alive and kicking. Had Israelis known, back during Oslo, that the weapons they feared so much would actually be used for their benefit, maybe they would have sung Tupac’s line instead: “Give ‘em guns, step back, and watch ‘em kill each other.”