Israeli official: Legally armed civilians have ‘part to play’ in wake of violence

Story highlights

NEW: Palestinian government reports 34 dead, more than 1,100 injured in recent weeks

8 Israelis have been killed, scores more injured in recent attacks, Israeli spokesman says

Israeli authorities have undertaken various measures aimed at bolstering security

CNN  — 

If you legally own a gun, then carry it.

That’s the message from Israeli police and government officials in the wake of a surge of violence there, much of it involving attackers, often Palestinians, armed with knives.

“The responsible civilian population – in the framework of the rule of law – has a part to play,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday morning. “We’ve urged Israelis to be vigilant. … Having the civilian population work closely with law enforcement is one of the keys in defeating this threat.”

Regev, the spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told CNN he doesn’t want anyone to defy his country’s “tough gun ownership rules.” Firearms licenses are only issued to those who pass tests and meet other requirements, and Regev said most of those who’ve earned the right “have had military training and know how to use that weapon effectively.”

The fire follows a spate of recent violence, with both sides trading blame about who is responsible.

Unlike in the past, the dangers aren’t coming from rockets raining down on Israelis. Nor is there an obvious armed campaign organized by a militant group. Instead, it’s often young Palestinians who may be acting out alone or, as Regev suggested, after being recruited or at least encouraged via social media.

A new kind of threat

Supporters of the Palestinian cause feel Israeli authorities have gone overboard, both in their words and actions. A coalition of human rights organizations – including Amnesty International and the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – has charged that police and soldiers are “too quick to shoot to kill,” while criticizing calls for civilians to carry weapons. And none of it is helping, they say.

“Politicians and senior police offices have not only failed to act to calm the public climate of incitement,” the Israeli-based groups said in a joint statement, “but on the contrary have openly called for the extrajudicial killing of suspects.”

The criticism of Israel’s response, not surprisingly, is loudest in the Palestinian territories. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned Wednesday that unless there’s a change, the violence will only get worse and spread further.

“The aggressive and growing Israeli attack against our people, land and holy places undermine peace and stability,” Abbas said in a televised speech, according to the official WAFA news agency. “This attack threatens to ignite the fuse of a religious war, which will burn everything – not only in the region (but) perhaps in the entire world.”

Israeli-Palestinian violence: What you need to know

East Jerusalem access restricted, police called up

Israelis are on edge following a spate of attacks, many of them involving knife-wielding assailants, though other weapons – from guns to cars – have been used as well. Noting over 30 attacks that have resulted in eight deaths and scores of injuries in the past month, Regev ripped Abbas’ government for not doing more to condemn the violence against civilians.

“We have no illusions about Hamas and other extremist groups that are interested in this sort of confrontation (and) interested in seeing more terrorism,” Regev said. “We’re calling on the Palestinian Authority to play a positive role. … They have no excuse (not to condemn the attacks).”

But Israel’s government isn’t just waiting for Palestinian officials to act.

Besides calls to legally armed Israeli civilians, they have shut down access to some Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and put more police on the streets, according to police spokeswoman Luba Samri.

Israeli security forces gather at the site where a road block is being set up.

Israel’s government has also given the OK – after the legal process plays out, including possible appeals to Israel’s Supreme Court – to demolish attackers’ homes.

This is in addition to calling up about 1,300 reserve border police officers and recruiting 300 security guards for duties tied to public transportation, in light of several recent attacks on buses or at bus stops.

“We’ve taken careful steps,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. “(The steps) are being taken in order to make sure the situation stays under control and doesn’t get out of hand.”

Human Rights Watch advocate Sari Bashi criticized measures like the East Jerusalem clampdown, saying it adversely affects all Palestinian residents rather than being a narrowly tailored response to a specific concern.

As to tearing down attackers’ houses – a deterrent tactic that some say directly hurts innocent people, including women and children, who live there – Bashi said, “The recent spate of attacks on Israeli civilians would present a challenge for any police force. But exacerbating the punitive policy of home demolitions is an unlawful and ill-considered response.”

Israeli police: 380 arrested for riots

While the tensions within Israel are undeniable, most of the clashes and most of the arrests in recent weeks have come in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian Health Ministry reported Thursday that 34 Palestinians have been killed so far this month in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, while more than 1,100 people have been injured in clashes with Israeli forces. That death toll includes a number of people who died after attacking Israeli troops or civilians.

Day after day, Palestinians and Israeli forces have squared off in skirmishes. Rosenfeld credited “heightened security measures” for preventing even worse violence, tweeting Thursday that 380 people have been arrested for rioting.

Some Palestinians, though, say it’s Israel that has broken the law.

They include Abbas, who pressed Wednesday for the International Criminal Court and other world bodies to investigate what he called “extrajudicial killings.”

“Who(ever) fears international law and sanctions must refrain from committing crimes against our people,” he said.

CNN’s Ben Wedeman, Ingrid Formanek, Michael Schwartz, Amir Tal, Salma Abdelaziz, Michael Martinez and Abeer Salman contributed to this report.