Jerusalem – The top posts in Israel’s national police force are now in the hands of hardline religious settlers who are seeking to make “alarming” changes to policing in both Israel and the occupied territories, critics have warned.
The growing influence of the settler movement was highlighted this month with the appointment of Rahamim Brachyahu as the force’s chief rabbi. He lives in Talmon, a settlement close to the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank.
Roni Alsheikh, who was made police chief late last year, lived for many years in one of the most violent settlements, Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron. According to Israel’s Haaretz daily, Alsheikh lobbied hard on behalf of Brachyahu for the chief rabbi position.
Relations between the police and Palestinian citizens are already disastrous. But the situation will deteriorate much further if the ideology of the settlers becomes the norm among the police.
It is the first time members of the religious settler community have held either of these top posts. Both have expressed their commitment to accelerating a programme called Believers in the Police, established five years ago, to recruit settlers and fast-track their promotion to officer rank.
Brachyahu has described the influx of religious settlers into the police as “a beautiful partnership, bringing something Godly into something that has historically functioned as not Godly.”
He has also declared his intention to place a stronger emphasis on Jewish religious law, or halakha, in policing work. His goal, he has stated, is to create a book of Biblical and rabbinical commandments for use by all police officers as they go about their duties.
That has raised deep concern among Palestinian leaders because Brachyahu has defended a notorious rabbinical handbook for settlers known as the King’s Torah. It argues that Jewish religious law justifies killing Palestinians as a preventative measure – including children in case they grow up to become “terrorists”.
“Religious fundamentalist, ultra-nationalist settlers are gaining power over many areas of public life in Israel,” Aida Touma-Suleiman, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, told Al Jazeera.
“But the transformation of the police is especially alarming, because it is supposed to be a civilian agency. Now there is a struggle in the police about which has priority – God’s laws or the state’s laws.”
The gradual infiltration of religious settlers into the police has mirrored a similar process in the Israeli army that began two decades ago, noted Jafar Farah, director of Mossawa, a political advocacy group for Israel’s large Palestinian minority.
Although the so-called national religious community – who adhere to the ideology of the settlers – make up only 10 per cent of Israel’s population, recent figures suggest that as many as half of all new army recruits are drawn from their ranks.”There is a clear coalition of interest between the right-wing government and the settler leadership to get their people into high positions in the major state institutions, including the security services, the courts and the media,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The goal is to control the decision-making processes and the public discourse in Israel.”
Believers in the Police targets settlers who have previously served in the army. The programme expects to produce 500 graduates over the next five years and move them into senior posts. Among those teaching on the two-year course are Dov Lior, the rabbi of Kiryat Araba, Alsheikh’s former settlement. Lior was one of several senior rabbis to endorse the King’s Torah.
In an effort to increase the enrolment of religious settlers in the Believers in the Police programme, a recruitment video was released earlier this year using footage exclusively of police actions against Palestinians. Activities included demolishing Bedouin homes, raiding the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, dealing with terror attacks, and checking Palestinian identity cards.
Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, declined to speak about the Believers in the Police programme, but told Al Jazeera Brachyahu’s appointment followed “a careful selection process that chose him as the right person to fill this role in the national police”.
Israeli police operate both inside Israel and in parts of the occupied territories under Israel’s full control, including East Jerusalem and settlements in the West Bank. The force has long been criticised for corruption and the mistreatment of Palestinians.
A judicial-led commission of inquiry concluded in 2004 that the police were institutionally racist, viewing the fifth of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian as “the enemy”. Farah noted that dozens of Palestinian citizens have died in unexplained circumstances at the hands of the police over the past 16 years.
But the growing presence of religious hardliners in the force is adding to concern.
“Relations between the police and Palestinian citizens are already disastrous,” said Touma-Suleiman. “But the situation will deteriorate much further if the ideology of the settlers becomes the norm among the police.”
Statistics released in the summer showed that in the four years to 2015 some 60 per cent of arrests made by the police were of non-Jews – meaning that they were nearly three times more likely to be detained than Jewish citizens.
Yossi Gurvitz, an Israeli journalist and researcher on the settlers, told Al Jazeera: “Palestinians already face brutality from the police. There must be fears that the level of brutality will increase.” In one of his first pronouncements after his appointment, Alsheikh argued that Palestinians did not suffer bereavement in the same way as Jews. He added: “Our enemies chose to sanctify death.”
In March, he also ended a 12-year dialogue project that had sought to reduce friction between the police and Palestinian communities in Israel.
Palestinian leaders fear that the growing presence of extremist settlers in police ranks has emboldened settler youths behind a recent wave of violence against Palestinians, both in the West Bank and Israel. The police have been accused of failing to investigate attacks that have included the torching of mosques and churches.
Farah said the growing settler influence would contribute to a “sense of impunity” regarding violence both from the settlers and from police officers. In a sign of their growing confidence, violent settlers burnt down a home in the Palestinian village of Duma last year, killing three members of the Dawabshe family, including a toddler. Several settler leaders closely involved with Believers in the Police denied that the Duma attack was an act of terror.
They include Eli Ben Dahan, a settler rabbi who is now the government minister in charge of the military administration ruling over the occupied territories. He has called Palestinians “subhuman”. Another likely flashpoint is policing of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Israeli police control access, and have been allowing ever larger numbers of religious settlers to enter the site. That has included settlers committed to the destruction of the mosque to replace it with a Jewish temple.
Such visits have sparked repeated clashes between Palestinians and the police, and were blamed for triggering last year a spate of so-called “lone-wolf” attacks by Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Settler politicians involved with the Believers programme, such as Uri Ariel and Bezalel Smotrich, have demanded that Jews should have a legal right to pray in the al-Aqsa compound, despite the likely danger that it would spark regional turmoil.
The settler leadership has made no secret of its intentions to dominate the police force.
In a 2011 interview, Nahi Eyal, founder of Believers in the Police, said his aim was to help the settler community “find our way into the command ranks”. He told Israeli media he had reached that conclusion after his son was badly injured in clashes with police over the destruction of a handful of homes in a small West Bank settlement in 2006. “If you want to change something, you have to do it from within the organization,” he said, in apparent reference to foiling future police efforts to take on the settlers. “You have to get inside [the police] and lead it.”
The settler movement has recently captured top posts in Israel’s other main security services, including the Mossad spy agency and the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency. Gurvitz said the takeover of branches of the security services had become easier in recent years because of wider trends in Israeli society.
“The public has become far more religious and far less tolerant. The problem is in the society more than the police,” he said.