By Dan Williams and Ismael Khader
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - During previous rounds of Palestinian violence, Israeli raids on the occupied West Bank would turn up small arsenals of military assault rifles. Now hauls more often include what look like toy guns and the tools required to make them lethal.
After years of seizures that have choked the supply of unlicensed M-16s and Kalashnikovs in the territory and raised black-market prices, some Palestinians are turning to improvised firearms to carry out street attacks on Israelis.
Five months into a series of killings by Palestinians that have mainly involved stabbings and car-rammings, some are stepping up the assaults by using such makeshift guns.
This escalation could pose problems for authorities on both sides, who are seeking to keep the bloodshed from spilling over into another uprising that could draw in armed Palestinian factions and trigger sweeping Israeli crackdowns.
The shift was illustrated by the haul from an Israeli raid on a foundry in the occupied West Bank this week; photos released by Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service showed a sniper rifle held together by duct tape, a Wild West-style long gun with a silencer welded on, as well as a lathe machine tool.
The foundry may be a testament to the effectiveness of past raids, by both Israeli and Palestinian security services.
"A genuine M-16 now costs 60,000 to 70,000 shekels ($15,000-$18,000) on the street, whereas an improvised gun can cost as little as 2,000 shekels ($512)," one Palestinian with knowledge of the trade told Reuters. "For a young person looking to carry out an attack with limited resources, the choice is obvious."
The crudity of the cobbled-together guns may offer scant comfort to Palestinian and Israeli security officials.
Palestinian leaders and international powers have already said Israel has often used excessive force against assailants, many of them youths, though Israel has rejected this, saying it has prevented lethal attacks on civilians and security forces.
Security experts cautioned that Israel was likely to be even less restrained should its forces or citizens come under regular attack with guns, regardless of how lethal they are.
"It's one thing for a soldier to face someone who is trying to stab him with scissors, quite another to face a gunman - he can never know whether if there is more ammunition, if the gun is still a threat, so he is likelier to shoot," said Amy Ayalon, who headed the Shin Bet between 1996 and 2000, when the last Palestinian revolt against Israel erupted.
"So the response, on site, tends to be harsher, and the political echelon will be forced to back it up."
OVER 200 KILLED
Palestinian attackers have killed 28 Israelis and a U.S. citizen since October. Israeli security forces have killed at least 172 Palestinians, 114 of whom Israel says were assailants, while most others were shot dead during violent protests.
Tensions have been stoked by various factors including a dispute over Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound and the failure of several rounds of peace talks to secure the Palestinians an independent state in Israeli-occupied territory.
Palestinian leaders have said that with no breakthrough on the horizon, desperate youngsters see no future ahead. Israel says young Palestinians are being incited to violence by their leaders and by Islamist groups calling for Israel's destruction.
Two Palestinians who killed an Israeli policewoman and wounded another in Jerusalem last month before they were shot dead were armed with improvised guns known as "Carlos", Israeli authorities said.
Carlos - simple knock-offs of Swedish-made Carl Gustav machine-pistols made in metal foundries - are among the cheapest makeshift guns to buy on the black market, say the authorities.
According to one Israeli security source, the relatively low Israeli death toll in the attack was partly due to the gunmen's failure to fire rapidly, possibly due to the Carlos jamming.
Israel is also holding two Palestinian brothers from the West Bank city of Hebron for four gun attacks that wounded two soldiers and two civilians. The Shin Bet says they used a Carlo and an improvised sniper rifle with a silencer fashioned out of an oil can as instructed by a video they found on the Internet.
A spokesman for the Palestinian Security Services in the West Bank said they were aware makeshift weapons were being manufactured there.
"Making weapons locally is common everywhere in the world and we are moving against the sources of such weapons because they represent a risk," Adnan Al-Dmairi told Reuters.
Improvised guns can be air-rifles converted to shoot real bullets rather than pellets, the Palestinian source said. According to one Shin Bet official, some West Bank armourers cannibalize parts from broken M-16s or Kalashnikovs and reassemble them as workable composites, with missing components manufactured in private workshops. These can sell for around 5,000 shekels ($1,280) on the Palestinian black market.
"Obviously such weapons will not be as reliable as a complete factory-made gun," the Shin Bet official told Reuters. "Most of the recent gun attacks employed improvised firearms. It appears that in many cases they malfunctioned."
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Pravin Char)