Netanyahu’s ‘national guard’ deal with Ben-Gvir raises fears of intercommunal violence

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  April 27, 2023

Political rivals have denounced the national guard plans as creating a personal ‘militia’ for extremist minister.

After a dramatic day of wildcat strikes that shut down much of the country last month, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, finally announced that his government’s controversial plans to overhaul the judiciary would be suspended until the Knesset’s summer session.

The Israeli leader struggled for hours to reach a compromise with the recalcitrant far-right elements of his coalition pushing for the judicial changes. But that evening, the extremist anti-Palestinian Jewish Power party, led by the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said it had agreed to back the pause in exchange for a promise to create the minister’s long sought-after “national guard”.

Before the Passover recess began, the government agreed in principle to establish a new national guard force. Details are still scant, and the exact makeup, budget allocation and leadership structure will be determined by a committee that is due to report back to the Knesset in June.

With rumours swirling that Israel plans to step up operations against Palestinian groups after its independence day on Wednesday, it is possible that both the judicial overhaul and the national guard plans will be kicked into the long grass.

The prospect of an official armed body under Ben-Gvir’s direct control, however, has already caused alarm.

“There is a need to strengthen the police in Israel, yes,” said Omer Bar-Lev, Ben-Gvir’s predecessor under the 2021-22 “coalition of change” that briefly ousted Netanyahu from office. “Whether you call a new force a ‘national guard’ or not is a cosmetic question … Adding another force, with a different chain of command, is not necessary or even possible.”

The security situation in Israel has sharply deteriorated over the last year. Terrorist attacks by Palestinians are at a 20-year-high, and in the Palestinian community, which makes up 20% of the population, organized crime is rampant and murder rates are surging.

Ben-Gvir, who has a conviction for racist incitement and in the past advocated for the deportation of all Palestinian citizens, campaigned before last year’s election on promises of stability and public safety. Over the last two weeks, aware that his party is losing support because it has delivered the opposite, he has publicly vented frustrations with what he deems the “constraints” of his new role in government.

He is not the first security official to call for enhancing or reinforcing a national guard force designed for emergency situations: the previous government began moves to set up an auxiliary police force.

But political rivals have denounced the national guard plans as creating a personal “militia” for the extremist minister, and trying to create a loyal force that will crack down on the countrywide demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

And Ben-Gvir’s assertion that the new force will focus on “areas with criminal organizations and mixed cities” – meaning Israel’s poverty-stricken “central triangle”, home to Jews and Israeli Palestinians – has raised the spectre of intercommunal violence.

In May 2021, when Israel fought a brief war with Hamas, the Palestinian militia in the blockaded Gaza Strip, ethnically charged street fighting, rioting and lynching on a scale not seen in decades on the streets of Israeli cities deeply shocked the public.

Maisam Jaljuli, a well-known feminist and political activist from the central town of Tira, said: “This talk about a Ben-Gvir militia, it is already happening. We saw it in 2021, when the young men from the settlements came to Lod and Ramle to fight and make trouble.”

She was referring to Jewish settlement communities in the occupied West Bank deemed illegal under international law. Ben-Gvir himself lives in the restive Palestinian city of Hebron/Al-Khalil, and much of his party’s base are Jewish settlers.

She said: “It would give them an official license to kill Arabs [Palestinians]. It’s an adaptation of the actions settlers take against Palestinians in the West Bank, with great success, into our society. He has the men, and he has the money: the government has already approved the budget for this initiative.”

A spokesperson for Ben-Gvir did not respond to requests for comment about the plans for a national guard.

Like many other ambitious and unfulfilled policies that have arisen in Israel’s chaotic political wrangling of the last few years, it is not yet clear whether Ben-Gvir’s national guard will come about as planned. There is establishment opposition, including from Israel’s police chief, Insp Gen Kobi Shabtai; the proposal could also face legal challenges, and it is not impossible Ben-Gvir will quit the fractious governing coalition before the plans get off the ground.

Jaljuli said Israel was going through a dark time, but she took hope in the massive protest movement against the new government’s judicial overhaul, which has united the usually deeply polarized society.

“Something is changing. More and more Jewish people are understanding the danger right now, and that’s good,” she said. “I don’t know if it will improve society or end the occupation. But they are starting to think and ask questions.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian