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Why school shootings are so rare in Israel, where guns are such a common sight

An Israeli flag waves outside a building in the Israeli settlement of Amona in the West Bank.

PIERRE TERDJMAN/FLASH 90/TNS

By RUTH EGLASH | The Washington Post | Published: February 22, 2018

JERUSALEM — When students, parents and teachers pleaded with President Donald Trump this week to act against school shootings, they cited Israel, a place where guns are a familiar sight but where school shootings are virtually unheard of.

During a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, one parent correctly noted, for instance, that it is difficult for outsiders to enter an Israeli school. Most schools maintain only one unlocked entrance that is typically staffed by an armed guard.

But the schools have escaped American-style violence in large part because of measures to confront Israel's unique security challenge — and not because of efforts to deter troubled youths and lone madmen.

"The guards are there for other reasons, mainly terrorism," said Amos Shavit, spokesman for the Ministry of Education. He said the guards stationed at schools are under the authority of the police. In large cities, he said, the police and the local authority carry out security patrols around the educational institutions throughout the school day.

There are no metal detectors or special door locks on classrooms. And, by policy, teachers are not armed.

"Professionals deal with the security," Shavit said. "Not the teachers."

Israeli security experts also say that gun violence is rare in Israel because privately held guns are so rare. According to data from Israel's Ministry of Internal Security, which registers all gun owners, about 260,000 Israelis, or about 3.5 percent of the population, have permits to carry firearms. Half of the permit holders are private citizens, and the others work for security firms.

At the White House meeting, Cary Gruber, whose son hid in a closet during last week's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, correctly pointed out that Israel has tight age restrictions on private gun ownership. According to an Israeli government website, civilians must be over 27 years old to obtain a gun licenses, although those recently released from military service are also eligible. Israelis serve in the military from age 18 to 21.

Simon Perry, a criminologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said there is little opportunity in Israel for someone to carry out a gun attack inside a school. While security guards keep an eye on all those entering schools, Perry said, they do not check students' bags - mainly because gun culture in Israel is different.

"Most people in Israel go to the military. Even if they are not combat soldiers, they are given some weapons training. They are taught how to handle a weapon and how to respect a weapon," Perry said. And, he said, "it is very, very hard to obtain a weapon in Israel."

To outsiders, Israel can seem like a heavily armed country. That is in large part because soldiers are a frequent sight on the streets and combat troops, as well as those who serve in what are termed combat areas, carry their weapons with them at all times.

But once an Israeli finishes military service, it becomes difficult to obtain a gun.

Applicants must submit extensive paperwork, provide their military records and medical reports. They also must justify their need to be armed. Residents of Tel Aviv, for example, are unlikely to receive gun licenses, whereas Israelis living in border areas or in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, places where they could be targets for Palestinian militants, are more likely to be approved for gun licenses.

In addition, retired army officers above a certain rank, former police officers, firefighters, ambulance technicians, special forces veterans and licensed public transportation drivers can also qualify for permits.

The requirements after permits are approved also are strict. Owners are subjected to an array of restrictions on the types of guns they can own, on the amount of ammunition they can possess, as well as guidelines on where to keep their guns - in locked safes - and a process of checking weapons in with police if leaving the country for more than a week.

Janet Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the State University of New York Downstate in Brooklyn, examined the difference in homicide rates between Israel and the United States. Writing in the New York Post, she said her research showed that Israel ranks 81st in the world for per capita firearm ownership, with fewer than 1 in 10 Israelis owning firearms. The United States, with one firearm for every person, ranks first.

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