War Stories

Automatics for the People

Why do Palestinians have M-16s?

Palestinian gunman with M-16

Earlier today, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat portrayed Colin Powell’s diplomatic mission as ineffectual with these words: “Honestly, the situation is worse today than it was seven days ago. … I don’t know if we have a Palestinian Authority anymore. Everything of our civil infrastructure and security infrastructure has been destroyed.” He meant, of course, by Israel, but actually the destruction of that infrastructure was begun a long time ago, by Yasser Arafat.

The phrase “Palestinian gunman” has become such a staple of Middle East coverage that everyone seems to have forgotten that the category has been illegal since Sept. 13, 1993, when Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo peace agreement at the White House. That document says (in Article XIV, Paragraph 4) that no one other than the Palestinian police force and Israeli military may “manufacture, sell, acquire, possess, import or otherwise introduce into the West Bank or the Gaza Strip any firearms, ammunition, weapons, explosives, gunpowder or any related equipment.” This provision was the foundation of the Palestinian civil and security infrastructure, and there is no evidence that the Palestinian Authority ever enforced it.

The idea that a Palestinian weapons bazaar was a key ingredient in the second intifada got a brief media airing earlier this year when, in the Red Sea, Israeli commandos seized the Karine A, a ship with 50 tons of mainly Iranian-sourced weapons apparently bound for Palestinians. All these armaments are illegal under Oslo. Arafat initially claimed that he had nothing to do with the shipment and that the weapons were going not to him but to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Then he said no, it was a setup by the Israelis. Both explanations had the problem that the captain of the seized vessel, an officer in the Palestinian Authority navy, had already admitted that his cargo was intended for the Palestinians and that his instructions came from a Palestinian Authority official. A bit later, Arafat accepted responsibility for the smuggling attempt, not personally, but as chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

It’s possible, though not plausible, that Arafat was personally unaware of the Karine A operation. But given that he signed the Oslo agreement, it’s flat-out impossible for him not to know that it’s illegal for the street fighters who’ve sworn allegiance to him to carry arms. What’s more, the widespread presence of guns in Palestinian territories doesn’t just prove that the PA wittingly failed to control the weapons Oslo allowed it to have—it also settles the question the Karine A raised by making it clear that the PA is either intimately involved in weapons smuggling or at least knowingly looks the other way. Yes, maybe many of those banana-clipped Kalashnikovs you see Palestinians carrying in so many news photos did come from Palestinian police arsenals. Under Oslo, the Israelis did, after all, give the PA cops 15,000 of these. But how about all those made-in-America M-16s they are increasingly seen toting? The Israelis didn’t cough them up. (They held on to theirs, because M-16s are widely used in the Israeli army, while Kalashnikovs are not.) Every M-16 you see in Palestinian hands is illegal, says Gal Luft, a former Israeli army officer who worked with the Palestinian police.

M-16s are prized on the West Bank for their ability to use readily available Israeli ammunition and for their numerous accessories, such as telescopic sights and grenade launchers. (Growing in popularity among Palestinians is the newer, short-barreled version, the M-4.) Luft says M-16s come on the West Bank black market along many different routes—they’re smuggled in from Gaza, after being sneaked in there via tunnels from Egypt, and from Jordan; they come in on ships; are stolen from Israeli army depots and settlements; are captured in clashes with Israelis; and are sold by Israeli criminals. Getting M-16s takes serious financing that’s out of reach for the West Bank students and unemployed who squeeze their triggers—in that neighborhood, they cost about $1,500 apiece.

The intercepted Karine A shipment included 212 Kalashnikovs and nearly 700,000 bullets for them. But it represents a raised ante, because it also contained anti-tank weapons, long-range rockets and mortars, and 2 tons of explosives—mostly C-4, the moldable stuff that’s a suicide bomber’s dream. And Luft told me that the Israeli air force now operates on the assumption that besides some Russian-made Strela man-portable surface-to-air missiles on the West Bank, there are also some of the superior American-made Stinger man-portable SAMs there. Luft thinks it’s mainly a lack of training that has thus far kept Palestinians from using these against Israeli helicopters or commercial aircraft.

In short, the appearance in the West Bank of increasing numbers of modern assault weapons isn’t just a main cause of unrest there—it also indicates the shape of things to come.