Israeli cabinet approves Ben-Gvir’s ‘national guard’ plan
Critics warn the far-right security minister could use the 2,000-strong force specifically against anti-government demonstrators and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The Israeli cabinet has authorised plans for a controversial “national guard” sought by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to deal with unrest in Palestinian communities in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Sunday that the cabinet approved the establishment of the force, but that a committee comprised of Israel’s existing security agencies would determine the guard’s authorities and whether it would be subordinate to the police or take orders directly from Ben-Gvir, as he demands.
The committee has 90 days to make its recommendations.
A statement from Ben-Gvir’s office said the guard, which would operate under his ministry, would deal with “emergency scenarios, nationalistic crime, terror, and strengthening sovereignty”.
The move was a condition set by Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, to agree to freeze the government’s controversial judicial reforms following months of protest and a crippling general strike on Monday.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid called the government’s decision on Sunday an “extremist fantasy of delusional people” and slammed a separate decision to cut budgets from other ministries “to fund Ben-Gvir’s private militia”.
“The priorities of the government are ridiculous and despicable. The only thing that keeps it busy is running over democracy and promoting extreme fantasies of delusional people,” Lapid said on Twitter.
Under Ben-Gvir’s plan, the unit is to work alongside the police and military and deal with “civil unrest”, such as the “disturbances” or pro-Palestinian protests that occurred in mixed Jewish-Arab areas during the Gaza war of May 2021.
“It will deal with this exclusively. The police does not deal exclusively with this. It’s busy with a thousand and one things,” Ben-Gvir told Army Radio.
Critics warn that Ben-Gvir – a hardline Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank with past convictions for support for terrorism and incitement against Palestinians – could use the force of around 2,000 troops specifically against anti-government demonstrators or the Palestinian and Arab population.
David Tzur, former district commander of the Tel Aviv police force, told Al Jazeera that there is no need for a separate force.
“I think we need to strengthen the existing police force,” Tzur said.
“We cannot accept that there will be any kind of law enforcement which is not under … the police commissioner. It is very strange that the government would decide to create another police [unit], and the sense that it would be a private militia or it would be parallel to the existing forces … it would be a disaster.”
Israel’s police chief, Inspector-General Yaacov Shabtai, has also expressed misgivings that the national guard, if not under his own force’s control, “could prove most costly and even harm the security of the citizenry”, according to the Ynet news site.
Several ministers initially opposed Ben-Gvir’s project, but finally agreed to it Sunday at the insistence of Netanyahu, Israeli media reports said, adding that the budget for the project is around $276m.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from West Jerusalem, said the guard will be funded “by skimming about 1-1.5 percent of the budgets of all the other ministries”.
But forming a national guard is still a few months off.
“The attorney general told the cabinet she’s not convinced by the legality of this new national guard. She said as of now, there is a legal hindrance to advancing the current draft … it also has parliamentary hurdles to jump,” Smith said.
Ben-Gvir said he planned to establish a committee with representatives from the prime minister’s office, defense ministry, justice ministry, finance ministry, Israeli police and army to implement the establishment of the force.
Civil rights groups and opposition politicians have expressed deep concern over the proposal to form a national guard under Ben Gvir’s control.
“Why does the State of Israel – which has an army, police, military intelligence, the Shin Bet, Mossad, National Security Council, Prisons Service, riot police, a SWAT team – need another national guard?” tweeted Israeli legislator Ayman Odeh.
Former public security minister Omer Bar-Lev, who had advanced the formation of a national guard in 2022 as part of the border police, said it was already that force’s responsibility to be dealing with the issues Ben-Gvir was tasking the national guard with.
“The thought that a private militia would be formed by an embarrassing minister who lacks understanding and was convicted of support of a terror group and incitement to racism is shocking,” Bar-Lev wrote of Ben-Gvir on Twitter.
Former army chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot meanwhile said the formation of a body directly subordinate to the national security minister was a “severe event that destabilises the principles of using force in the country and endangers the country”, reported Israeli media.
Ahead of the proposal being published, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to express deep concern over the plan.
Hundreds of people gathered in central Tel Aviv to protest against the proposal last week.