The Israeli cabinet has defied opposition from leading security officials as it seeks to keep the government from folding and took the first step towards implementing far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s plan for a national guard.
A government committee is now working to determine the shape and scope of the national guard, but key details that have already been revealed have aroused alarm and suspicion.
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The national guard was part of a compromise to win Ben-Gvir’s support to suspend the government’s planned judicial overhaul after weeks of protests. In defence of his national guard, the security minister said on Sunday that it was a revival of the similar-sounding Israeli Guard, which had been launched by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in 2022.
Bennett’s Israeli Guard was formulated to be part of the Israeli Border Police, but Ben-Gvir’s national guard would report directly to his office.
Bennett’s proposal was made in the aftermath of an attack that killed three Israelis in May 2022, and a year after a spate of violence in Israeli cities, such as Lydd (Lod), Ramla, Jaffa and Haifa, which have mixed populations of Palestinians and Jews.
Some residents in those cities, such as Lydd Mayor Yair Revivo, have welcomed any increased policing. Revivo told Al Jazeera that he would personally accept any help from the government, whatever the force was called.
But others have a much different view. According to Fida Shahada, the director of the Coalition of Women Against Weapons and a social organiser in Lydd, a new national guard will not help.
“The problems in Lydd are much deeper than security,” Shahada told Al Jazeera. “There have been many years of neglect and segregation that creates a tense environment amongst [Palestinian and Jewish] citizens.”
Prime Minister Benjamin “Netanyahu gave a huge gift to Ben-Gvir in order to remain in power,” she said. “The present is an armed guard that he will direct against anyone who expresses an opinion other than religious Zionism or against Ben-Gvir and his people. The conclusion of this is that the moment there are protests against the state, this will be the force that will send people home.”
For Rafi Reznik, a postdoctoral fellow at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute, the national guard may be a response to the growing sense that the Palestinians cannot be considered an “external problem” for Israel, particularly given the increasingly dim prospects of a Palestinian state and the continued occupation and illegal settlements in the West Bank.
“I think his [Ben-Gvir’s] agenda is to shift [away from] a fear of terrorism [committed by] Palestinians who are geographically distinct and turn that into a fear of criminal who are among us,” Reznik said. “The national guard helps him translate that into action.”
Opposition from the establishment
Questions have been raised about the guard’s budget – and where it would come from.
Some cabinet ministers reportedly complained of budget cuts needed to fund the guard, a reported figure of 1.5 percent of the entire government’s budget, which will come out of other departments’ funding.
The national guard proposal has also led to alarm bells going off within the Israeli police. The head of the police, Kobi Shabtai, warned of “dire consequences”.
“A national guard separate from the police will lead to forces firing upon forces,” Shabtai said in a letter last week to Ben-Gvir and Netanyahu.
Former police chief Moshe Karadi was even stronger in his opposition, suggesting Ben-Gvir could harness the national guard to carry out a “coup”.
Ben-Gvir’s camp, however, has said the national guard’s separation from the police is a necessity.
“There are reasons we don’t want it [to be] under the police,” Yishai Fleisher, an adviser to Ben-Gvir, told Al Jazeera. Without elaborating, Fleisher said that “in very simple terms, the police has its own issues”.
Fleisher also disputed Shabtai’s warnings and said the new national guard would not result in two offices with overlapping purposes.
“It’s going to be better run this way,” Fleisher said. “It is about the running of the country and trying to create more safety for more people.”
Fleisher has previously referred to June 2021 violence in the mixed cities as evidence of the police’s inability to protect Israelis.
Ben-Gvir’s adviser, however, was not willing to accept that this violence had anything to do with the growth of groups promoting the ideology of Meir Kahane, an ultranationalist who called for Palestinians to be expelled from their homeland. Kahane formed a party called a “terrorist” organisation by both Israel and the United States. Ben-Gvir was a member of its youth wing.
“It is not Kahanism that is driving this – it is jihadism,” said Fleisher, who also serves as a spokesman for the illegal Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.
As the establishment of a national guard force under Ben-Gvir appears closer, fears among Palestinians are increasing.
“[Ben-Gvir] has no intention of making life safer for Palestinians,” said Sally Abed, a national organiser with Standing Together, a pro-peace movement made up of Palestinians and Jews.
Abed said Ben-Gvir’s justifications for the new force, such as his claim that he wanted to round up weapons held by Palestinians, was an attempt to stop Palestinians from defending themselves in any future violence directed against them.
“[It is intended to] make sure that [Palestinians] are not as armed,” Abed said, “[and] that special forces under [Ben-Gvir’s] control can actually combat any expected … clashes within the bi-national cities.”