Itamar Ben-Gvir is one step closer to having power over his own “private militia,” rights groups warned this week after the Israeli government advanced a decision to further the establishment of a National Guard.
The decision came on April 2, less than a week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to establish a National Guard under Ben-Gvir’s purview as National Security Minister, in exchange for the latter agreeing to put a pause on controversial judicial reforms that had thrown the country into months of protests and rising tensions.
Following the initial agreement in late March, political analysts expressed concerns that giving Ben-Gvir power over a national guard was equivalent to handing over a “big gift” to the far-right politician, who has previously been convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terror organization.
On Sunday, April 2, the cabinet greenlit the financing and creation of the national guard. Who oversees it, however, is still up for decision by a special committee composed of Israel’s security agencies.
According to a statement from the PM’s office, the committee has 90 days to discuss the parameters to which the guard would operate and, most contentiously, who the guard would be subordinate to.
Israel’s police chief, which operates under the purview of the national security ministry, says the guard should be subordinate to the police. Ben-Gvir, however, has expressed his public discontent with the police and says the guard should be answerable to him directly.
While it will take months before the guard gets off the ground and starts operating, rights groups are warning that the fact that it exists, and will in some way be controlled by a figure like Ben-Gvir, is a worrying prospect.
Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which advocated against the creation of the guard, described the move as “entrenching racial law enforcement.”
“The establishment of the “National Guard” further entrenches Israel’s practice of maintaining two separate law enforcement systems based on national affiliation,” the group said in a statement.
“One system is administered by the police and is responsible for enforcing the law for the general populace in accordance with general law enforcement regulations. The other system is designated exclusively for Palestinian citizens of Israel and comprises armed civilian militias with law enforcement authority.
Creating these two separate tracks based on race, particularly with respect to law enforcement powers, is absolutely prohibited and violates the principle of equality before the law.”
What Is the National Guard?
According to the initial proposal submitted by Ben-Gvir, the National Guard will be composed of Israel’s Border Police, army reservists, and “civilian volunteers” who would be answerable to his Ministry of National Security.
The cabinet’s decision stated that the guard will serve “as a skilled and trained force to deal…with various emergency scenarios, national crime, and the fight against terror, as well as to strengthen sovereignty in areas where required, within the framework of the tasks currently held by the Israeli police in these areas.”
A statement by the office of the Prime Minister said, “the National Guard will deal with national emergency situations such as the disturbances that occurred during Operation Guardians of the Walls,” referring to nationwide unrest in 2021 that saw a wave of popular Palestinian uprisings in the occupied territory and inside Israel, referred to by Palestinians as the Unity or Dignity Uprising.
The national guard is not a new idea. It was formed by the previous government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennet as a measure to “strengthen national security” in response to the 2021 uprisings. But when the previous government crumbled, the guard was put on pause.
What differentiates the guard this time around, Adalah staff attorney Adi Mansour tells Mondoweiss, is that while it previously existed under the police, Ben-Gvir is seeking to bolster the guard and bring it under his control.
Mansour described an already “racist and discriminatory” way in which the police operate toward Palestinian citizens of Israel. He says a national guard, which would include armed civilian “volunteers,” would take that a step further.
“If we look at what happened in May , Jewish civilians and settlers were armed and began attacking Palestinians in Haifa, Yaffa, and Lydd,” he said, referring to the so-called “mixed cities” in Israel that saw exceptionally high levels of anti-Palestinian violence by Jewish mobs during the 2021 uprisings.
“We saw the results of those armed civilian groups. So we should actually be horrified at the idea of having armed civilian volunteers with police authority inside communities with Palestinians in them,” he said.
The national guard would allow the so-called civilian “volunteers” to use their weapons “whenever they want, and wherever they are called upon,” Mansour said.
“We’re talking about a very dangerous situation for Palestinians, particularly Palestinians in ‘48,” he continued. The term “‘48 Palestinians” refers to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who live west of the 1949 armistice line, or “Green Line.”
“A national guard is essentially an armed civilian force under the control of Ben-Gvir. It is very dangerous.”
What Does It Mean for Palestinians?
Palestinians and rights groups across the board say the national guard will be used exclusively to target Palestinian communities in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem, where the Israeli police and border police currently operate as the official “law enforcement.”
The Israeli military is the occupying force in the West Bank, so though the national guard would likely not operate there in an official capacity, settlers in the West Bank will be deputized against the Palestinian population.
“How do we know that this national guard will only operate against Palestinians? We just have to look at the language used in the proposal for the guard,” Mansour said. “It’s terminology that we know indicates an operation against Palestinians.”
“It talks about ‘bringing back control’ and ‘losing our grip’ on Palestinian areas like the Naqab, Galilee, and so on,” he continued, adding that the proposal refers to “nationalistic attacks,” which Mansour says usually refers to Palestinians attacking Israelis.
“This is with the understanding that the Israeli public largely sees the whole Palestinian community as violent, and maybe as terrorists,” he said.
While the proposition itself does not explicitly mention Arabs or Palestinians, Adalah noted that members of Ben-Gvir’s party have further confirmed what Palestinians know, which is that they are the primary targets in this whole scenario.
On April 3, Adalah noted, the Minister of Heritage, Amichai Eliyahu from Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party, “explicitly stated” the guard was intended exclusively for Palestinians, saying it is meant for “citizens of the country who identify with the enemy..” which the group said further “perpetuates the perception of Palestinian citizens as the “enemy” of Israel’s law enforcement authorities.”
“To top all of this, it is going to be under the control of Itamar Ben-Gvir and his ministry,” Mansour said, adding that while police usually operate under a chain of command within the framework of law enforcement, Ben Gvir is at the end of the day, a politician.
“He [Ben Gvir] serves his voters, he serves his interests. And eventually, if you give him an extreme power of using oppression and power against civilians, he can use that effectively for his own political gain,” Mansour said. “His political interest is, first of all, hating Arabs because that serves his base.”
That could lead to increased policing and violence in Palestinian communities, attacks by a volunteer force of armed Jewish citizens, and more arrests, Mansour warned, adding that Palestinian communities have already witnessed a rise in the policing of their communities since the 2021 uprisings.
In the six months after May 2021, Mansour said that 90% of incitement charges that were filed by police inside Israel, were filed against Palestinians. Meanwhile, violent Jewish Israelis, who were documented as attacking or inciting crimes against Palestinians, were rarely held accountable.
“When Palestinians rose up to protest, they were met with force, they were met with aggression, and control. And we are seeing the continuation of that today with the national guard,” he said.
“A lot of armed [Jewish] civilians carry racist and fascist ideas of Palestinians as the enemy. So imagine now that these people are being armed, legalized, and given the power of the police. It could lead to something very dangerous for Palestinians.”
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