Security Force or Anti-Arab Militia? Israelis Feud Over Far-Right Plan

JERUSALEM — When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended his contentious plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary this past week, easing weeks of unrest, he won the support of one of the most right-wing ministers in his coalition by promising to take the first steps toward forming a new national guard that the minister could control.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister for national security, has long pushed for such a national guard. The idea is that it would be made up of both regular armed forces and volunteers who might be deployed at short notice during times of unrest, like the riots that swept across Israel in May 2021 during the 11-day Israel-Hamas war.

He says the proposed guard is an essential mechanism for preserving Israeli security during times of crisis. But critics say that as envisioned by Mr. Ben-Gvir, according to a proposal in documents he released this past week and other public statements, the force would essentially be aimed at Israel’s Arab minority.

The riots of 2021 were between Arabs and Jews in the country’s areas with a large Arab presence.

The possibility that his proposal could be adopted has already set off protests, amid fears, dismissed by the minister, that he could also use it against his political enemies.

Mr. Netanyahu has promised to discuss the idea on Sunday at a meeting of the Israeli cabinet. It would take months of discussions and planning before being put to a vote in Parliament.

Asked for comment on Mr. Ben-Gvir’s plan, a senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the idea was still under discussion.

Mr. Ben-Gvir is one of the most extreme voices in Israel’s government, its most right-wing ever. As a teenager, he was barred from serving in the Israeli Army because he was considered too extremist. He has been convicted of racist incitement and support for a terrorist group and, until 2020, hung a portrait in his home of an Israeli gunman who killed 29 Palestinians in a West Bank mosque in 1994.

He has taken a more cautious approach in recent years, for example, by somewhat distancing himself from the teachings of a rabbi who was assassinated in New York in 1990, Meir Kahane, who wanted to strip Arab Israelis of their citizenship and segregate Israeli public space. But critics say the national guard proposal would still endanger Israel’s Palestinian minority, which forms roughly 20 percent of the country’s 9 million population.

They point to language in Mr. Ben-Gvir’s statements about the plan, which says the guard might also be used against criminals who steal agricultural equipment, or during the demolition of illegally constructed homes.

Home demolitions typically target Arabs who build houses without government authorization in East Jerusalem and in Bedouin communities in the Negev desert. And the Israeli right has frequently drawn attention to police data showing a high number of arrests of Arabs for farm theft.

“If this thing passes, it will be an imminent danger to the rights of Arab citizens in this country,” Gadeer Nicola, head of the Arab department at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an independent rights watchdog, said.

“This will create two separate systems of applying the law,” Ms. Nicola said. “The regular police which will operate against Jewish citizens — and a militarized militia to deal only with Arab citizens,” she added.

For many Arab residents of the Israeli areas rocked by the unrest of 2021, Mr. Ben-Gvir’s proposed national guard sounds like a formalized version of the armed far-right groups, some of them from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, that went to Arab neighborhoods during the riots. They see hard-line settler activists as the likeliest civilian volunteers for the force.

“The danger is grave,” said Maha Khatib, a lawyer and activist from Lod, a mixed city heavily affected in 2021. “The settlers will now operate officially under Ben-Gvir — armed.”

Some critics have even suggested that Mr. Ben-Gvir might seek to use a new national guard as his own personal militia, directed against both Palestinians and Jewish opponents, fueling more unrest.

Mr. Ben-Gvir dismissed the concerns as hyperbolic.

“Let’s make things clear,” Mr. Ben-Gvir wrote on Telegram this past week. “No private army and no militias.”

“This is a Zionist project of the first order,” he added, “and another step to strengthen security and governance in the country.”

Mr. Ben-Gvir is not the first to propose a national guard. A similar plan to create such a body within the police force was approved, though never established, under the previous government of Naftali Bennett.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s idea, though, would remove the guard from police influence, making it an independent institution.

A former deputy police commissioner, Uri Bar-Lev, presented a detailed preliminary version of the idea to Mr. Ben-Gvir before the minister entered office in December. According to Mr. Bar-Lev’s plan, Mr. Ben-Gvir would not have day-to-day control over the guard, just as he is currently barred from controlling daily police operations.

In an interview, Mr. Bar-Lev acknowledged that the premise of his plan was to target organized crime in Arab communities — but only to remedy longstanding neglect by the Israeli police.

Partly driven by feuds between Arab crime gangs, inter-Arab violence has killed more than 100 Arab Israelis in each of the last two years — the majority of all homicides in Israel, where violent crime is much less common than in the United States. While the Israeli police successfully restrained Jewish crime gangs in a campaign a decade ago, officials acknowledge a lack of similar effort in Arab communities. And Mr. Bar-Lev said a national guard could help make up for that.

“Only a dedicated task force — with budgets, equipment, training and overseen from a national headquarters — will succeed,” Mr. Bar-Lev said.

Mr. Netanyahu has attempted a fraught balancing act since December, when he formed the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history with an alliance of ultranationalist and ultraconservative religious parties. He insisted repeatedly that he would maintain stability, amid fears that his allies’ provocative approach to the Palestinians and the secular world would test Israel’s foreign alliances and create higher security risks at home.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s willingness to consider the idea of a national guard helmed by a hard-line minister has amplified growing doubts about whether he can continue to navigate an increasingly volatile situation and retain control.

The concept of a national guard was just one of several contentious ideas that Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, signed onto in December in its coalition agreement with Mr. Ben-Gvir’s party, Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, which had never before been in a government.

The agreement also nominally stipulated that Mr. Ben-Gvir would be given control over several police commando units that currently operate under military command in the occupied West Bank.

That promise has yet to be carried out.

Carol Sutherland contributed reporting from Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.

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