What Itamar Ben-Gvir as security minister will mean for Palestinians
On 25 November, an Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron was filmed telling an activist that Israeli parliament member and incoming national security minister Itamar “Ben-Gvir's going to bring order to this place… You're done for... I decide what the law is around here”.
In a separate incident, another soldier in Hebron was caught on camera slamming an activist to the ground and punching him in the face. Together, these events illustrate what life may be like with Ben-Gvir running the police.
On the same day as the soldiers’ assaults, Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power Party and re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party struck a deal placing Ben-Gvir in the newly created national security minister role.
"The settler movement is empowered now because they know they're untouchable"
Dov Waxman, director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at the University of California in Los Angeles, called the appointment irresponsible, saying, “It’s like putting a pyromaniac in charge of a fire”.
The position expands the public security minister's job to include overseeing the Border Police in the occupied West Bank in addition to Israel’s national police. The Defence Ministry is currently in charge of the West Bank’s Border Police unit, but Ben-Gvir’s new role changes that authority.
“Trying to expand [the security minister] authorities is a way for Ben-Gvir to fulfil his own agenda,” Mairav Zonszein, a senior Israel-Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, said.
Internally, the new role is already facing pushback from Israeli politicians. Outgoing Defence Minister Benny Gantz accused Netanyahu of giving Ben-Gvir “a private army” in the West Bank. Having control over the Border Police means Ben-Gvir will be in charge of law enforcement handling Palestinian protests and Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank.
While all Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law, only outposts are illegal under Israeli law. The far-right lawmaker has long supported legalising outposts.
Possible policy changes under Ben-Gvir
The New Arab’s conversations with several experts indicate that one of Ben-Gvir’s top policy issues will be shifting the norm on Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site.
“Everything that governs Palestinian life will be divided between Ben-Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich,” Israeli activist Miko Peled said, referring to Smotrich’s position as a minister in the Defence Ministry. “The burning of Al-Aqsa and the building of a new temple is very high on their priority list.”
Along with groups of Israeli extremists, Ben Gvir has stormed Al-Aqsa Compound several times, often performing religious rituals there. Currently, Jews are allowed to visit the area, known to them as the Temple Mount, but not pray there.
Some Temple Mount activists have advocated for the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque, where they believe two ancient Jewish temples once stood, to then be replaced with a third temple.
"His rhetoric emboldens soldiers and border police to clamp down on Palestinians"
Ben-Gvir has said he wants to change the status quo regarding Jewish prayer, which could further inflame tensions at the flashpoint site.
The lawmaker, who was convicted of racist incitement against Palestinians in 2007, has also advocated for targeted assassinations of Palestinians in response to terrorism, shooting Palestinians for throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails, and stripping Palestinians of Israeli citizenship for their deemed disloyalty to Israel or for attacks against soldiers.
With Ben-Gvir’s role to include managing the Israel Prison Service, Palestinian political prisoners may also feel the upcoming minister’s harsh reforms. He has proposed worsening prison conditions for Palestinians, who are already treated inhumanely in jail - living in cramped cells, undergoing physical and psychological abuse, and being denied family visits.
Emboldening Israeli soldiers and settlers
The soldier, Yair Levy, who berated an activist in Hebron last month was initially sentenced to 10 days in military prison. However, after Ben-Gvir met with Levy’s father and denounced the soldier’s punishment, his jail time was reduced to six days.
Waxman noted that Ben-Gvir’s language “encourages Israeli soldiers to feel like they can act with more impunity”.
Over the weekend, Ben-Gvir praised an Israeli soldier who fatally shot Palestinian Ammar Mefleh at point-blank on Friday.
"Precise action, you really fulfilled the honour of all of us and did what was assigned to you," Ben Gvir told the soldier, calling him a “hero”.
“His rhetoric emboldens soldiers and border police to clamp down on Palestinians,” Yara Hawari, a senior policy analyst at the Palestinian policy network, Al-Shabaka, told The New Arab.
But activists and experts warn that the Israeli army and police aren’t the only groups galvanised by Ben-Gvir gaining greater power.
“The settler movement is empowered now because they know they're untouchable,” Peled said. “Not that they were ever held accountable before, but this is going to be amplified now a thousand-fold."
"Everything that governs Palestinian life will be divided between Ben-Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich"
This year, there have been more than 260 settler-related incidents resulting in Palestinians being injured or killed. This number is already nearly 70 per cent higher than last year’s figures. More than 100 incidents of settler violence were recorded within 10 days in October, just as Israel was gearing up for its November election.
According to Zonszein, with Ben-Gvir, who lives in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, now holding a top government position, it “gives everybody who lives in the settlements trying to intimidate Palestinians, all the more legitimacy to continue doing what they're doing”.
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.
Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum