Netanyahu will make Palestinians pay to save his coalition

Ameer Makhoul

Middle East Eye  /  March 31, 2023

A national guard under the direct authority of a far-right minister will intensify the repression of Palestinians.

By announcing a pause to his government’s judicial coup this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succumbed to three forces.

The first was unprecedented and unexpected mass protests, which nearly turned into a civil disobedience movement. Disruptions to economic and social life were widespread, and dissent reached the military and even Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. 

The second was the United States. Intervention by the administration of President Joe Biden was significant in the days leading up to Netanyahu’s announcement, putting intense pressure on the prime minister. Biden said on Tuesday that Netanyahu would not be invited to the White House anytime soon

The third force comprised Netanyahu’s own political allies. To ensure the survival of his ruling coalition, Netanyahu succumbed to Jewish Power party chief and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, agreeing to establish a national guard under his direct command. 

In addition, the Knesset has now passed temporary legislation that allows police to search the homes of Palestinian citizens of Israel without a warrant. The law ostensibly aims to combat the spread of unlicensed weapons in Palestinian communities. The real effect, however, will be to give police full authority to storm and search any Palestinian house without a court order.

Ben-Gvir was also a vocal supporter of dismissing Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in the days leading up to Monday’s massive protests and Netanyahu’s subsequent reform freeze.   

Gallant was unofficially dismissed after he dared to demand that Netanyahu engage in dialogue with the opposition and halt the proposed legislation. Gallant also conveyed warnings from the military about the dangers of it weakening and even disintegrating amid protests in its ranks.

Netanyahu, fearing a swell of dissent from within his own Likud Party, announced Gallant’s sacking without handing him a letter of dismissal. Ben-Gvir cheered on in a tweet: “Time for reforms.”

Declaring war

The national guard was first announced by the previous government, led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, in response to mass protests by Palestinians in Israel in May 2021. Composed of active-duty and reserve officers and volunteers trained by police, the force would answer to Israeli police and military authorities. 

The new arrangement, however, would bring the force directly under Ben-Gvir’s authority.

Israeli politicians and commentators have thus called it a “private militia” that could potentially be used against political opponents or to suppress protests. Yet, many have failed to point out the real significance of establishing a national guard. 

The previous government, in line with assessments by the Shin Bet and police in the wake of the May 2021 protests, viewed Palestinian citizens of Israel as a hostile front, and devised the national guard scheme to help prevent a future uprising. 

Today, by agreeing to put the national guard under Ben-Gvir’s authority with a billion-shekel budget, Netanyahu is making Palestinian citizens of Israel pay the price for preserving his own fragile coalition. This state-funded private militia will be used to declare war on Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The project has even drawn criticism from the Israeli police over the potential that it will clash with their own work. 

Expected escalation

It would seem Netanyahu has nothing more to lose in this political crisis, having already jeopardized the economy and security apparatus, parts of which now see him as a threat to national security – all to pass his “judicial reforms”, which were devised by the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think tank funded largely by US donors.

Netanyahu already managed to get a law through last week that could shield him from fallout over his corruption trials. 

For Ben Gvir, the “judicial reforms” would liberate him from procedural and legal constraints in the ongoing state policies of repression and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – both in 1948 territories and across the occupied West Bank. 

For Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the “reforms” would advance his annexation plan by legalizing settler outposts and driving Palestinians out of Area C, as happened in the Huwwara pogrom. Smotrich has publicly advocated wiping out the Palestinian town and denied the existence of Palestinians.

In the end, Netanyahu has preserved his ruling coalition by making Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line pay the price. 

While the future remains unclear, the Religious Zionism movement is certain to continue its escalation against Palestinians across the country in the days and weeks ahead. 

Ameer Makhoul is a leading Palestinian activist and writer in the 48 Palestinians community; he is the former director of Ittijah, a Palestinian NGO in Israel; he was detained by Israel for ten years