‘Palestinians should go to Saudi Arabia’: the extremist in charge of Israel’s security

Tim Hume

VICE  /  March 10, 2023

The radical far-right politician who told VICE World News in 2021 that Palestinians should move to Muslim-majority countries is now an Israeli government minister. Itamar Ben-Gvir’s rise reflects a new reality in Israel.

When plans to evict Palestinian families from a neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem led to confrontations and police violence in May 2021, a fringe, far-right Israeli politician spotted an opportunity for one of his trademark provocations.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party, set up a makeshift “political office” at the entrance to the former home of a Palestinian family, now occupied by Jewish settlers. Although the “office” was little more than a folding table and a few chairs underneath a marquee, the stunt was an inflammatory symbol of the growing settler presence in Sheikh Jarrah, stoking tensions in a neighbourhood already at boiling point.

“I don’t have a problem with Arabs [Palestinians] ,” Ben-Gvir told VICE World News correspondent Hind Hassan in Sheikh Jarrah at the time, in previously unreported comments we are making public in light of the far-right lawmaker’s recent rise to power. “Those who are loyal and want to live peacefully, are welcome.” 

But when asked whether he thought that Palestinians had a right to live in the neighbourhood, his mask slipped.

“Jerusalem is ours,” he said. “The Palestinians can go to – the Gaza Strip should also be ours – can go to Saudi Arabia or other places, like Iraq or Iran.

“Not here, this is our place. Israel is our country.”

Shocking as they might appear, the remarks were in keeping with the radical ultranationalist politics the 46-year-old Ben-Gvir has long espoused, first as a firebrand young activist for a brand of extremist religious Zionist ideology, then as a lawyer defending militant Jewish extremists, then as head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party – a role in which he has publicly called for the deportation of those who act “against the State of Israel,” from stone-throwing Arab youth to Jewish MPs deemed disloyal.

What’s even more remarkable is that, less than two years on from that exchange in Sheikh Jarrah, Ben-Gvir is now Israel’s Minister of National Security, a key player in the hardline nationalist-religious coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The coalition is viewed as the most far-right and religiously conservative government in Israel’s history, and is currently facing a wave of mass protests over proposed judicial reforms that critics believe amounts to an anti-democratic power grab.  

Ben-Gvir’s cabinet post gives a startling degree of power and influence to a populist provocateur who has spent decades on the radical fringes of Israeli politics, advocating a militant, xenophobic brand of far-right politics that was long considered beyond the pale of the political mainstream. 

His sudden rise has horrified large parts of the Israeli establishment, and given militant settlers – such as those who carried out a deadly rampage through the West Bank town of Huwara last month – a figure they see as one of their own at the heart of government. Observers say this is already having an impact in emboldening Israeli militants, helping to fuel a recent wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and raising concerns about just how explosive Ben-Gvir’s tenure may ultimately prove.

“To have those kinds of figures in positions of power is very emboldening for people on the ground,” said Amjad Iraqi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is a senior editor at +972 Magazine, a left-wing news site.

“[Militant settlers] feel that the government has their backs, the military has their backs, and the international community is not going to do anything about it,” he said. “There’s no reason for them to pull back. It’s very alarming.”

Ben-Gvir did not respond to VICE World News requests for comment through his ministry on allegations he had played a role in inflaming recent settler violence, and whether he stood by his comments to our correspondent in 2021.

By any measure, his rise is unexpected development for a figure whose party was unable to muster enough support for a single Knesset seat for years, until Ben-Gvir was elected as its sole representative in 2021. As recently as February that year, Netanyahu had assured Israelis that he would not consider Ben-Gvir for a cabinet post.

But amid unending political chaos that resulted in five snap elections in under four years, facing an ongoing corruption trial, and with limited options for his survival, Netanyahu eventually turned to Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power and other far-right and ultra-religious parties, hammering out a coalition deal to return to power in November last year. 

“Ben-Gvir is almost the most far-right that Israeli politics has to offer,” said Haggai Matar, the executive director of +972 Magazine, adding that it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe him as “a fascist, basically.”

Matar said the appointment of a figure as extreme as Ben-Gvir into a cabinet position was unprecedented in Israeli politics – the manifestation of a marked shift to the right that had occurred during the Netanyahu era of the 2010s.

“It’s a testament to the radicalization and the moving of the goalposts further further into the right in Israeli society,” he said.

By the age of 18, Ben-Gvir was already viewed by the authorities as such an extremist that he was disqualified from compulsory military service in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). He has since received multiple criminal convictions for offences including incitement to violence and racism, and support of a terrorist organization, the banned political party Kach, in 2007. Until recently, he displayed a portrait of terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers in a 1994 attack in Hebron, on his living room wall.  

While Ben-Gvir’s removal of the portrait in 2020, upon the launch of his political career, represented a modest attempt to scrub away the more extreme and objectionable facets of his public image, he hasn’t exactly gone overboard with the makeover. In October last year, just two months before he came into ministerial office, he made headlines for brandishing a handgun amid clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, urging police to shoot stone-throwing Palestinians, and yelling: “We’re the landlords here, remember that.” It wasn’t even the first time he had brandished a gun at Palestinians in public.

And just days after taking office in late December, one of his first acts as government minister was to make a provocative visit to the Temple Mount, a holy site in East Jerusalem that is one of the most sensitive flashpoints in the Middle East dispute, ratcheting up communal tensions and sparking a wave of international condemnation.

Matar and Iraqi say the rise of Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right hardliners in the new Israeli government, sworn in in late December, has made government support for militant settlers – which critics say always existed, albeit in a more tacit fashion – more explicit than ever, giving the militants a growing sense of impunity.

This political support was on clear display following recent violence in Huwara, a Palestinian town of some 7,000 people in the West Bank. After a Palestinian gunman murdered two Israeli brothers, a mob of hundreds of extremist settlers rampaged through the town in revenge, shooting one man dead, leaving hundreds injured, and burning cars and properties. Iraqi said it was telling that the attack in Huwara was carried out by a mob of hundreds, rather than the smaller groups of militant settlers that would typically be involved.

In the aftermath, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Ben-Gvir’s coalition partner as head of the Religious Zionism party, said he wanted to see Huwara “wiped out”. Zvika Fogel, a parliamentarian from Ben-Gvir’s party, said “a closed, burnt Huwara – that’s what I want to see,” prompting police to launch an investigation against him on suspicion of inciting terrorism. As for Ben-Gvir – who has repeatedly insisted that Jewish violence against Arabs [Palestinians] is not terrorism – he said that while he understood the rioters’ pain, citizens should not take the law into their own hands. He subsequently railed against his own government for detaining two suspected Israeli rioters, and attacked the attorney general’s decision to prosecute Fogel over his remarks.

It’s no surprise that Israel’s radical settler movement should see Ben-Gvir – himself a resident of Kiryat Araba, a settlement in the occupied West Bank which is considered illegal under international law – as one of their own.

Since his teens, Ben-Gvir has been a disciple of Meir Kahane, the ultra-nationalist politician and rabbi who led the extremist Kach party, until his assassination in 1990. Kach, which sought the expulsion of all Palestinians from Israel and the occupied territories, was banned from participating in the 1988 Israeli elections under a law against parties that incited racism, and subsequently outlawed altogether as a terrorist organization in 1994.

Ben-Gvir became a youth activist for Kach two years before it was banned, at the age of 16. Three years later, in 1995, he would get his first brush with infamy when he brandished a hood ornament ripped off then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car in front of reporters, boasting: “We got to his car. We’ll get to him, too.” Rabin, loathed by the Israeli right for having signed a peace agreement with Palestinians, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist shortly afterwards.

Ben-Gvir has also been accused of orchestrating vandalism of Palestinian property and a UN compound in East Jerusalem in the late 90s and early 2000s, allegedly using impressionable younger far-right teenagers to carry out the attacks. The allegations were made by a former Jewish-extremist turned photojournalist in The New Yorker last month, who said the politician, whom he had considered like an older brother at the time, had made him break into a UN base and damage vehicles there when he was 14 and Ben-Gvir about 24. Aides for Ben-Gvir denied the claims.

While Kach was officially banned as a terrorist organization in 1994 – Ben-Gvir would eventually be convicted over his support of the group in 2007 – radicals from the movement remained active, and Kahanist ideology continues to hold sway over extremists. Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party is viewed as the ideological successor to Kach, with Ben-Gvir articulating a slightly moderated version of his politics.

“I am not Rabbi Kahane and I do not support the deportation of all Arabs [Palestinians],” Ben-Gvir said at an event commemorating Kahane in November, drawing boos from the crowd. Instead, he promises to deport “terrorists” – alongside anyone he considers to act against Israel.

Matar, executive director of +972 Magazine, said those remarks reflected Ben-Gvir’s attempt to walk a careful line of whipping up animosity towards Palestinians without falling foul of the laws against incitement and other offences – a line he may have crossed in his May 2021 comments to VICE World News.

“I think, as a lawyer, and as a very shrewd politician, has been very efficient in distancing himself from sayings that cross that fine border between the legal and the illegal,” he said.

But despite those efforts, recent statements – like Fogel’s in support of the settler violence in Huwara – appeared to have shown the party’s true colours, said political analyst and historian Sara Hirschhorn. 

 “During the election campaign, Otzma Yehudit tried to frame itself as being within the rule of law and against violence,” she said.

“Recent statements, including I think what we can see is incitement to violence … by members of his party during the events in Huwara, seem to suggest otherwise.”

Alongside the escalating cycle of attacks, the new hardline nationalist-religious governing coalition is also facing ongoing mass protests against planned judicial reforms. Protesters believe the reforms – which would limit the judiciary’s power to strike down legislation as unconstitutional, and give the government decisive influence over the selection of judges – will undermine democracy by consolidating power in the hands of the governing coalition.

Critics claim the plans are also motivated by the desire to help Netanyahu to escape political consequences if he is convicted of corruption. For Ben-Gvir, the reforms could also potentially clear the way for law changes that would enable even more radical figures to his right – currently disqualified from running for office – to enter the political fray, said Matar.

Meanwhile, Ben-Gvir’s controversial plans to restructure the security forces have raised fears that services like the Border Police, much of whose work involves policing Palestinians, could be brought more directly under the control of a lifelong hardliner who has called for security forces to be given a freer hand.

It all points in an alarming direction for Palestinian-Israeli relations and the health of Israeli democracy. But, said Matar, while many Israelis were distressed by the rise of Ben-Gvir and his far-right politics, for some Palestinians, his newfound prominence also served to shine a light on the oppressive realities of Israeli policies, such as its support for settlers.

“With Ben-Gvir, he just says what Israel does. And he supports what Israel does, and doesn’t distance himself from actions on the ground,” said Matar. “It helps people around the world understand what Israel has actually been doing for this long. There’s nothing here that’s entirely new.”

Tim Hume – senior staff writer VICE World News

Additional reporting by Hind Hassan and Lama al-Arian