Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Have Gun, Will Travel


Photo (c) Amy Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 10 April 2004.

Right now we are in the middle of the Passover holiday. This is a time when schools, many offices, and places of business are closed. A great many Israelis take advantage of this free time, and the balmy weather, to engage in one of the most favored of all Israeli pasttimes: traveling around this beautiful country. Israelis particularly love to get out and enjoy nature.

Last week, just before the start of the holiday, the Chief of Police made what
I believe is an unprecedented request of the Israeli populace. Those who have a permit to carry a weapon have been asked to take it with them on their travels within Israel throughout the Passover holiday. The sharp increase in the number of warnings of terrorist accounts since the assassination of Ahmed Yassin is the cause for this request. That makes sense to me, yet even while I acknowledge the unusual nature of this call to arms, as it were, I can't help wondering why it has never happened before.

Israelis are a people very much used to living in the presence of guns. Young children, whose fathers come home on leave from reserve duty with an M-16 rifle, learn early on what it is, and not to touch it. When older brothers and sisters serving in the army come home, they are often required to bring a weapon with them, as well. Then the children reach age 18 and learn first-hand how to use and care for such a weapon. Perhaps as a result of this, Israelis don't have the love/hate relationship Americans seem to have with guns. There is no ego involved in the matter of carrying a weapon. To most Israelis, a gun is a tool to be used only if necessary. Carrying a weapon is not a "right", it is a responsibility to one's country.

As adults, some Israelis do obtain licenses for handguns. In order to do so, they must apply to the Interior Ministry, presenting one of a limited number of valid reasons for needing a weapon (one such reason might be living or working in the West Bank). At that point, they are asked to sign a waiver, allowing the Interior Ministry to check their medical records, to see if there is any indication of mental imbalance. If the person is granted a license, he or she is only allowed to purchase a handgun.

There are game hunters in Israel, though not many. To obtain a hunting rifle requires (you guessed it) a special permit. You are only allowed to carry your hunting rifle on hunting trips, during the season. (As far as I have been able to determine, hunting mainly takes place in the northern part of the country. The game of choice is wild boar).

I have written before about the phenomenon of Israeli school children on field trips being guarded by at least one armed parent (or paid guard). If such cannot be found, the trip is cancelled. This may seem frightening, but I can tell you that as a parent, I am heartily in favor of this rule.

Given the above, and the fact that the the majority of the population has served, or is currently serving, in the army, I have to wonder why citizens are not called upon more often to carry their weapons as a precaution. In fact, most people who have a licensed weapon normally carry it with them when they travel around the country. Perhaps the request was made largely as a gesture, to attempt to reassure the public that safety continues to be the number one priority. Possibly there are other reasons of which I am unaware. It is a puzzle to me, but one I am happy exists. Not only are the police and the army on full alert, we citizens are, too. In the tradition of our country, we are watching over one another, even while we're on vacation.

(c) Amy Samin

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