Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has gone from being a fringe, Palestinian-hating, religious far-right provocateur to holding a key position in the Israeli government.
His most recent outrage-inciting comments came last week when he admitted that his right to move around unimpeded is superior to the freedom of movement for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
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“My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs,” he said in an interview, using the biblical term for the occupied territory.
The State of Palestine condemns in the strongest terms the racist and heinous remarks made by Israel’s #fascist_Minister_Itamar_Ben_Gvir, which only confirms Israel’s apartheid regime of Jewish supremacy and racial terror against the #Palestinian_people.
Ben-Gvir’s racist… pic.twitter.com/jvlpnosU7e
— State of Palestine – MFA 🇵🇸🇵🇸 (@pmofa) August 24, 2023
He later sparred with American supermodel Bella Hadid after she criticised his comment.
“In no place, no time, especially in 2023 should one life be more valuable than another’s. Especially simply because of their ethnicity, culture or pure hatred,” she wrote in a post on Instagram, where she has close to 60 million followers.
In response, Ben-Gvir called Hadid an “Israel hater” and said she had shared only a segment of the interview on her social media account in order to portray him as a racist.
Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has said “The right of me, my wife and kids to travel around the West Bank is more important than that of the Arabs.”
This is an open admission of the discriminatory logic that underlies Israel’s apartheid. https://t.co/6h8Z175gCQ
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) August 25, 2023
Rise to power
The 47-year-old lawyer and politician has led the far-right party Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) since 2019, and was sworn into the cabinet after last year’s elections.
He was later appointed the national security minister and handed control of Israel’s Border Police division in the occupied West Bank.
A settler in Kiryat Arba, one of the most radical settlements in the occupied West Bank (all of which are illegal under international law), Ben-Gvir has been convicted of incitement to racism, destroying property, possessing a “terror” organisation’s propaganda material and supporting a “terror” organisation – Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach group, which he joined when he was 16.
But in the March 2021 elections, Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party managed to enter the Israeli parliament by merging with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union party, becoming the Religious Zionism slate at the behest of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lost the election to the combined front of Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid.
Congress just had a meltdown about Rep. Jayapal correctly calling Israel a racist state, meanwhile Ben-Gvir and the rest of Israel’s fanatical governing coalition is out here literally begging people to understand that Israel is racist. https://t.co/ogEIRZk2ao
— Tariq Kenney-Shawa (@tksshawa) August 23, 2023
Ben-Gvir also wants to expel “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel. In August, a local radio station’s online poll found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis support the proposal.
In April, the Israeli cabinet defended Ben-Gvir’s plan for a national guard, which was part of a compromise to win Ben-Gvir’s support for the government’s planned judicial changes after weeks of protests against them. In defence of his national guard, which would report directly to his office, the security minister said it was a revival of the Israeli Guard, which was set up as part of the Border Police, launched by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in 2022.
According to experts, Ben-Gvir benefitted from the timing of Israel’s election and a fractured political landscape.
“During periods of uncertainty and tension, when people want an answer and the left wing doesn’t have an immediate one, the ground is fertile for the messages of the right wing, which answers in a much more populist way,” Daniel Bar-Tal, a political psychologist at Tel Aviv University, told Al Jazeera. “And this is the phenomenon of Ben-Gvir.”
Ben-Gvir has a long history of provoking Palestinians and the Israeli left.
In 1995, at the height of the Oslo Peace Accords, when he was 19, Ben-Gvir showed TV cameras the bonnet ornament from then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car, declaring: “We got to his car. We’ll get to him, too.”
A few weeks later, Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist at a rally in support of the peace agreement and the planned withdrawal from Palestinian territory.
Ben-Gvir was also notorious for displaying on his wall a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994.
Since winning a Knesset seat, he has pulled a gun on Palestinian parking attendants in Tel Aviv – over which he was interrogated by police – and gotten into a dispute with legislator Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, when Odeh blocked him from the hospital room of a Palestinian prisoner on hunger strike.
Last November, Ben-Gvir went to the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Israeli authorities were attempting to evict Palestinian families, with a group of settlers who slashed Palestinians’ car tyres and tried to storm one family’s home. When Palestinians responded by throwing stones, he pulled out a gun, despite the police presence at the scene.
In June, he entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem and declared Israel “in charge”, drawing condemnation from Palestinians after months of escalating tension and violence.
“I’m happy to ascend the Temple Mount, the most important place for the people of Israel,” Ben-Gvir said during his visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Last month, he led a group of more than 1,000 ultranationalist settlers to the compound again, his third such visit to the site this year.
Backlash and criticism
Netanyahu’s decision to bring Ben-Gvir in, “straight from the fringes of the radical and lunatic right-wing to the heart of political life and to turn him into a hero”, was lamented by former minister Limor Livnat last year. Livnat, from the right-wing Likud party, wrote in a newspaper that a “real Likudnik won’t vote Likud” in the lead-up to the elections.
Ehud Barak, a former Labour party prime minister, prophesied “dark days” if Ben-Gvir entered government, while left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Galon said the elections would “determine whether there will be a free country here or a Jewish theocracy”.
Ben-Gvir’s comments last week have received widespread condemnation.
Some Israeli journalists reacted with outrage on social media over Ben-Gvir’s comments, pointing out that he was acknowledging apartheid on air.
Israel’s national security minister: “The right of me, my wife and kids to travel around the West Bank is more important than that of the Arabs. Sorry Mohammed, but that’s the reality.”
Anyone who’s still not calling this apartheid — what else do they have to say? https://t.co/jClPkURcCZ
— Ben Reiff (@bentreyf) August 23, 2023
Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian-Israeli member of Knesset, said: “For the first time, an Israeli minister admits on air that Israel enforces an apartheid regime, based on Jewish supremacy.”
Hansen Majadli, a Palestinian editor and columnist at the Israeli daily Haaretz, berated Ben-Gvir’s “laziness”.