Palestinians in the Naqab face new threat from far-right militia

Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against Israel's land control in the Naqab-Negev desert (AFP)

Ameer Makhoul

Middle East Eye  /  April 4, 2022

Leader of Sayeret Barel has encouraged volunteers to act as ‘judge, jury and executioner’.

After months of deliberations involving Israeli police, the Beersheba municipality and the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, Israel recently saw the establishment of a Jewish militia bent on “reclaiming the personal safety of the citizen”. 

In Israeli political lexicon, “citizen” is shorthand for Jewish Israeli. The newly formed militia is called Sayeret Barel, a nod to the Israeli sayeret, or special forces, and to Israeli sniper Barel Shmueli, who was fatally shot at the Gaza fence last summer. 

And this might only be the beginning, after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week called on gun owners to arm themselves in public, following the killing of five people in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish area in Tel Aviv. “What is expected of you, Israeli citizens? Vigilance and responsibility. Whoever has a gun licence, this is the time to carry a gun,” he said. “We are also currently evaluating a larger framework to involve civilian volunteers who want to help and be of assistance.”

The initiative dates back to October, when former Israeli police officer Almog Cohen announced plans to establish an armed militia to protect Jewish residents of the Naqab (Negev) desert, due to what he claimed was inadequate police governance in the southern region. A call was put out for the registration of “police volunteers“, who, according to Israeli media, were to undergo special training in one of three brigades: one specialized in firearms, another in surveillance and security, and a third in logistics. 

Cohen said the group was formed because of the “loss of sovereignty of the state and the personal security of the citizenry”. His comments echoed the words of Beersheba’s mayor, who has said that if the state would not carry out its duties, municipal militias would be required to restore security in the Naqab.

Rising violence

These developments come in the wake of a string of violent incidents in the Naqab, which have fueled frustration among residents who say authorities are not doing enough to keep them safe. Ostensibly aiming to aid law enforcement, Cohen previously formed the Negev Rescue Committee, a far-right group that opposes the Arab Palestinian presence in the Naqab. 

Shortly after announcing the formation of Sayeret Barel, Cohen was asked whether he planned to take the law into his own hands, to which he responded: “We will not wait on any bureaucracy.”

The group was initially supported by the Israeli police and municipal authorities, but after gaining attention in the media, the police withdrew their endorsement of the organization saying that it would not be involved and did not attend the launch event that took place on 20 March, but officials have not said they will prevent the group’s operation.

Notably, the police attributed this move to the group’s funding sources, saying that it was “forbidden” to crowdsource for such purposes. But on their website, members of the militia say they were “establishing (with confirmation and collaboration of the police) the ‘Barel’s force’ named after Barel Shmueli”.

For its part, the Beersheba municipality criticized police for stating that the municipality had launched the group as a “residential initiative” made up of “volunteers for the protection of personal safety”, noting that police had offered the group both legitimacy and supervision. 

The question remains: why did Israeli police withdraw their support at the last possible moment over the crowdfunding issue? According to a police spokesperson quoted in Haaretz, the decision came “after it was clarified that crowdsourcing for such purposes is forbidden”.

The spokesperson continued: “The police welcome citizens wishing to volunteer as long as this takes place according to police procedures. The crowdfunding in this case was done through a nonprofit group that also raised money for the funding of [former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s trial.”

Official backing

Militias are nothing new in the history of Zionism. In the 1980s, one of the most prominent such groups the Hamachteret Hayhoudit (the Jewish Underground) carried out terrorist operations against Palestinian targets. Its stated goal was to alleviate the “loss of personal safety of the settlers” and fill in the “absence of the state”.  In addition to attempting to assassinate Palestinian political figures, the group also plotted to blow up Al-Aqsa Mosque.

What distinguishes Sayeret Barel from such groups is its air of respectability and official backing.

The municipality and police were complicit in its formation, even if they no longer support the group today. Palestinian rights groups and Knesset members should launch an investigation into the role of police in particular.

During the uprising across historic Palestine last May, lynch mobs and terrorists targeted Arab neighbourhoods – crimes that are typically treated leniently by the Israeli justice system. But the attacks were not limited to the far-right fringe, as Israeli security forces described the uprising as a new front that must be defended against in future, with the possibility of more intense violence ahead. 

In the case of Sayeret Barel, the group’s funding came through a crowdsourced campaign, which as of mid-March, had reportedly raised 110,000 shekels ($34,000) of its target of 1.4 million shekels.

At the end of the day, the formation of Sayeret Barel, and the fact that it has received official backing at various times and in various ways, indicates that it is not just the product of individual fancy. A sophisticated organization is targeting Palestinians in the Naqab and across all of Palestine – and its leader has encouraged volunteers to be “judge, jury and executioner”. 

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