Israeli government approves far-right minister’s proposal of national guard

Reuters  /  April 2, 2023

Itamar Ben-Gvir says force will focus on Arab [Palestinian] unrest as police chief voices concerns and opposition figures denounce it as ‘militia’.

Israel’s government has authorised the establishment of a national guard proposed by the far-right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who said it would focus on Arab [Palestinian] unrest, as 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 after pro-Palestinian protests in mixed Jewish-Palestinian areas during the Israel-Gaza conflict in May 2021. However, that government ended before the force was finalised.

The exact powers of the new national guard will be discussed by a committee comprising all the Israeli security agencies, which will submit recommendations within 90 days, the prime minister’s office said in a statement on Sunday.

It was not immediately clear who would have direct authority over the national guard.

Israel’s police chief, Insp Gen Kobi Shabtai, 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 who has past convictions for supporting terrorism and incitement against Palestinians – who make up 21% of Israel’s population – rose in politics partly as a result of the 2021 unrest.

Having moderated some of his positions, he wields an expanded law-and-order portfolio in 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 [Palestinian] 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.

Palestinian 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 countrywide demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh wrote on Twitter: “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?”

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 [Palestinian] sector.

He said the national guard would take months to get off the ground and that he was trying to fill police posts in parallel.

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”.