Al-Jazeera / April 2, 2023
Critics warn the far-right security minister could use the 2,000-strong force specifically against anti-government demonstrators and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The Israeli cabinet has authorised plans for a controversial “national guard” sought by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to deal with unrest in Palestinian communities in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Sunday that the cabinet approved the establishment of the force, but that a committee comprised of Israel’s existing security agencies would determine the guard’s authorities and whether it would be subordinate to the police or take orders directly from Ben-Gvir, as he demands.
The committee has 90 days to make its recommendations.
A statement from Ben-Gvir’s office said the guard, which would operate under his ministry, would deal with “emergency scenarios, nationalistic crime, terror, and strengthening sovereignty”.
The move was a condition set by Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, to agree to freeze the government’s controversial judicial reforms following months of protest and a crippling general strike on Monday.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid called the government’s decision on Sunday an “extremist fantasy of delusional people” and slammed a separate decision to cut budgets from other ministries “to fund Ben-Gvir’s private militia”.
“The priorities of the government are ridiculous and despicable. The only thing that keeps it busy is running over democracy and promoting extreme fantasies of delusional people,” Lapid said on Twitter.
Under Ben-Gvir’s plan, the unit is to work alongside the police and military and deal with “civil unrest”, such as the “disturbances” or pro-Palestinian protests that occurred in mixed Jewish-Arab areas during the Gaza war of May 2021.
“It will deal with this exclusively. The police does not deal exclusively with this. It’s busy with a thousand and one things,” Ben-Gvir told Army Radio.
Critics warn that Ben-Gvir – a hardline Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank with past convictions for support for terrorism and incitement against Palestinians – could use the force of around 2,000 troops specifically against anti-government demonstrators or the Palestinian and Arab population.
David Tzur, former district commander of the Tel Aviv police force, told Al-azeera that there is no need for a separate force.
“I think we need to strengthen the existing police force,” Tzur said.
“We cannot accept that there will be any kind of law enforcement which is not under … the police commissioner. It is very strange that the government would decide to create another police [unit], and the sense that it would be a private militia or it would be parallel to the existing forces … it would be a disaster.”
Israel’s police chief, Inspector-General Yaacov Shabtai, has also expressed misgivings that the national guard, if not under his own force’s control, “could prove most costly and even harm the security of the citizenry”, according to the Ynet news site.
Several ministers initially opposed Ben-Gvir’s project, but finally agreed to it Sunday at the insistence of Netanyahu, Israeli media reports said, adding that the budget for the project is around $276m.
Al-Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from West Jerusalem, said the guard will be funded “by skimming about 1-1.5 percent of the budgets of all the other ministries”.
But forming a national guard is still a few months off.
“The attorney general told the cabinet she’s not convinced by the legality of this new national guard. She said as of now, there is a legal hindrance to advancing the current draft … it also has parliamentary hurdles to jump,” Smith said.
Ben-Gvir said he planned to establish a committee with representatives from the prime minister’s office, defense ministry, justice ministry, finance ministry, Israeli police and army to implement the establishment of the force.
Civil rights groups and opposition politicians have expressed deep concern over the proposal to form a national guard under Ben Gvir’s control.
“Why does the State of Israel – which has an army, police, military intelligence, the Shin Bet, Mossad, National Security Council, Prisons Service, riot police, a SWAT team – need another national guard?” tweeted Israeli legislator Ayman Odeh.
Former public security minister Omer Bar-Lev, who had advanced the formation of a national guard in 2022 as part of the border police, said it was already that force’s responsibility to be dealing with the issues Ben-Gvir was tasking the national guard with.
“The thought that a private militia would be formed by an embarrassing minister who lacks understanding and was convicted of support of a terror group and incitement to racism is shocking,” Bar-Lev wrote of Ben-Gvir on Twitter.
Former army chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot meanwhile said the formation of a body directly subordinate to the national security minister was a “severe event that destabilises the principles of using force in the country and endangers the country”, reported Israeli media.
Ahead of the proposal being published, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to express deep concern over the plan.
Hundreds of people gathered in central Tel Aviv to protest against the proposal last week.
Source: Al-Jazeera and news agencies
Israel approves ‘national guard’ sought by far-right security minister
Middle East Eye / April 2, 2023
Palestinian politicians have denounced the national guard as a ‘militia’ for Itamar Ben-Gvir, while some say new force could be used to crack down on protests against the government.
Israel authorised on Sunday the setting up of a national guard under far-right security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has said it would focus on Palestinian unrest, while political rivals accused him of setting up a sectarian “militia”.
The previous government had begun moves to set up an auxiliary police force to tackle internal political violence following pro-Palestinian protests in mixed Jewish-Arab areas during the Gaza Strip war of May 2021. That government fell before the force was finalised.
The exact powers of the new national guard will be discussed by a committee comprised of all Israeli security agencies, which will submit recommendations within 90 days, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
It was not immediately clear who would have direct authority over the national guard.
Israel’s police chief, Inspector-General Yaakov Shabtai, has expressed misgivings about the new force in a letter to Ben-Gvir, local media reported.
Ben-Gvir, a hard-line Jewish settler from the occupied West Bank with past convictions for support for terrorism and incitement against Arabs – who make up 21 per cent of Israel’s population – rose in politics partly due to the 2021 unrest.
Having moderated some of his positions, he wields an expanded law-and-order portfolio in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist governing coalition.
Ben-Gvir has described the planned national guard in media interviews as an update of the previous government’s initiative. Discussing its planned deployments, he named only Arab communities hit by riots or crime, in Israel as well as along the boundaries with the Palestinian West Bank.
“It will deal with this exclusively. The police does not deal exclusively with this. It’s busy with a thousand and one things,” he told Army Radio.
Arab politicians have denounced the national guard as a “militia” for Ben-Gvir. Other opposition figures have accused Ben-Gvir of wanting a new force to crack down on nationwide demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.
“Why does the State of Israel – which has an army, police, military intelligence, the Shin Bet, Mossad, National Security Council, Prisons Service, riot police, a SWAT team – need another national guard?” Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh wrote on Twitter.
Government funding will enable an initial intake of 1,850 personnel for the new force, Ben-Gvir said, adding that these could be seconded police officers and volunteers, including from the Arab sector.
He said that the national guard would take months to get off the ground and that he was trying to fill police posts in parallel.
Israeli police chief Shabtai questioned the need for the national guard and warned that any separation of it from the police hierarchy “could prove most costly and even harm the security of the citizenry”, according to the Ynet news site.
Confirming the existence of the letter, Ben-Gvir said he would meet Shabtai on Monday and was open to the possibility of putting the national guard under the command authority of the police “if they’re serious and really want it”.
Netanyahu in weak position
The plan was part of a deal between Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir, who had threatened to resign after the prime minister paused a controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary following weeks of mass protests that brought the country to a stand-still on Monday.
Ben-Gvir agreed to the delay in return for allowing the creation of a national guard loyal to his ministry.
‘Clearly, Netanyahu’s political standing is extremely weak. His polling numbers are at historic lows, and his own party is extremely resentful of him’ – Yonatan Touval, analyst
“Clearly, Netanyahu’s political standing is extremely weak,” said Yonatan Touval, an analyst at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitvim), following the decision on the national guard.
“His polling numbers are at historic lows, and his own party is extremely resentful of him,” added Touval speaking to Middle East Eye.
Ben-Gvir has long supported the creation of a national guard and wants to “have a paramilitary force directly under his command that he can deploy in mixed Arab-Israeli towns inside Israel,” said Touval.
“It goes without saying that the force would focus on enforcing law and order on Arab residents whenever tensions and violence erupt,” he added.
Ben-Gvir has already told police to crack down harder on anti-government protests that have rocked the country since January.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has said: “We already saw what happened when Ben-Gvir wanted to suppress the protests; now, one can only imagine what will happen when he has his own militias.”
Palestinian citizens of Israel and those living in the occupied territories are also likely to fear the move, since it could likely be used against them.
“Giving a private militia to Kahanist minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is a convicted criminal, is likely to occasion a new low for Palestinian human security across the occupied Palestinian Territories,” said Robert Andrews, the public relations officer at the human rights NGO the EuroPal Forum.
Rabbi Meir Kahane was an Israeli-American who led a far-right group that gave rise to Kahanism, an extremist religious Zionist worldview premised on Jewish supremacy.
Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party has in the past espoused Kahanist ideology and is an important coalition member in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
“The decision to award the fascistic Ben-Gvir with a private militia will undoubtedly serve to embolden his clear anti-Palestinian agenda,” Andrews told MEE.
In the last few months, Ben-Gvir has already introduced a series of draconian measures against Palestinians.
In February, Israel’s parliament passed the first stage of a bill, introduced by the Jewish Power Party, to stop funding non-essential medical treatment for Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
Since joining Netanyahu’s government late last year, the security minister has vowed to crack down on the treatment of Palestinian prisoners, whom he claims are being treated too well.
Ben-Gvir has also ordered the closure of Palestinian prisoner-run bakeries in Israeli prisons and that detainees only be given four minutes to shower.
“With a private militia now under his absolute control, it is already clear – as per his statements thus far – that Ben-Gvir will use the group to further legitimise settler violence against Palestinian communities under the guise of ‘protecting law and order’,” said Andrews.
“The Hilltop Youth, [an extremist religious-nationalist settler group], already routinely terrorise and attack Palestinian civilians and property with impunity,” he added.
“One can expect Ben-Gvir’s militia to continue the acts of violence and terrorism against Palestinians, albeit while wearing uniforms and officially part of the state’s apparatus.”
Despite such fears, Touval said that the decision to form the national guard is likely to be fought in the courts and Ben-Gvir’s control over it is still far from assured.
“The establishment of such a force is likely to meet legal challenges, especially if, as the latest plan states, the national guard is to be separate and independent of the police and subject directly to the Ministry of National Security and its minister, Ben-Gvir himself,” said Touval.