Ben-Gvir's militia: A private army in the hands of an extremist

Illustration - Analysis - Ben-Gvir/national guard
4 min read
04 April, 2023

On Sunday, Israel’s parliament approved the formation of an armed force likely to be under the control of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Expected to comprise 2,000 officers including the Border Police, army reservists, and civilians, the so-called “national guard” aims to tackle “nationalist crime” with a strong focus on cities with prominent Palestinian populations. 

While the establishment of such a force may take months, opposition to it has been immediate and widespread with both Palestinians and Israelis viewing the controversial unit as a grave threat.

"We're talking about ideologically fascist policemen who will be equipped like an army"

Israel’s previous government took the initial steps in creating an auxiliary police force in response to the pro-Palestinian protests against Israel’s assault on Al-Aqsa Mosque and the besieged Gaza Strip in May 2021. The government fell before the initiative came to fruition.

Activists and civil society groups have condemned Ben-Gvir’s revival of the national guard, describing it as a militia that will embolden Israeli settlers and increase violence against Palestinians.

“This not only deepens the inequality, it builds two parallel law enforcement systems — one only for Palestinians,” Adi Mansour, an attorney at Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, told The New Arab.

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During the Palestinian uprising in May 2021, armed Israeli civilians attacked Palestinians and their property under the protection of law enforcement. Now, critics say Ben-Gvir’s armed force will operate in a similar way to May 2021’s violence, but on steroids.

“Imagine [what happened in May 2021] on a whole new scale supported by the state, and [armed civilians] would be given police authorities that would grant them total immunity to do whatever they want to do,” Mansour said.

Details remain murky surrounding the scope of Ben-Gvir’s guard, but media reports have suggested the security minister may recruit from organisations like HaShomer HaChadash, a Zionist group operating as a militia and tasked with defending agricultural lands.

An electoral poster shows Israeli far-right Otzma Yehdit (Jewish Power) party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, in the town of Katzrin, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on 19 October 2022. [Getty]

“We're talking about ideologically fascist policemen who will be equipped like an army,” Sally Abed, head of development at Standing Together, a joint Palestinian-Jewish peace movement, said.

She doesn’t foresee Ben-Gvir directing his guard to kill Palestinians outright, but she does anticipate he’ll provoke attacks.

“Ben-Gvir will try to incite more violence and create May 2021 2.0,” Abed said.

Police brutality in Israel reached terrifying levels during the events of May 2021, with reports of torture and beatings at the hands of law enforcement against protesters and bystanders. The aggression hasn’t subsided, with some arguing Israel’s new far-right coalition is escalating police violence.

In Israeli newspaper Haaretz, former Bedouin lawmaker, Taleb Al-Sana, described the fatal recent police shooting of Bedouin Mohammed Khaled Alasibi as “the continuation of the policy of incitement pursued by Ben-Gvir against the Palestinians and against the Arab community, and it trickles down to police officers, too”.

"Ben-Gvir will try to incite more violence and create May 2021 2.0"

Palestinians and Israelis under threat

While Palestinians are the force’s most visible target, sects of Israeli society also fear they’re at risk.

Dr Yair Wallach, an Israeli historian, explained that amid mass anti-government demonstrations sweeping Israel, protesters are concerned that Ben-Gvir’s force could be used against them as well.

In recent weeks, police have used force to quell demonstrators at rallies against the government’s proposed judicial changes. Additionally, right-wing extremists in favour of the judicial overhaul have led counterdemonstrations - often with the goal of attacking protesters.

“It legitimises the violence that we keep seeing against protestors in Tel Aviv and East Jerusalem,” Wallach said. “It normalises that kind of vigilante violence.”

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Abed from Standing Together emphasised that communities already the targets of police brutality in Israel, like Ethiopians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and former Soviet Union citizens, may experience greater aggression under a Ben-Gvir militia.

The Israeli parliament approved reducing more than 40 ministries’ budgets by 1.5 per cent in order to fund Ben-Gvir’s estimated one billion shekels (roughly £225 million) force. These wide-ranging cuts, Abed adds, will also be to the detriment of minority communities.

“Who are going to be the ones most harmed by these cuts? Marginalised people,” Abed said.

Concerns surrounding Ben-Gvir’s new guard aren’t just reserved for those living west of the Green Line, Israel’s de facto border separating it from the occupied West Bank. Palestinians in the occupied territories are also sounding the alarm over the armed force.

Activists and civil society groups say the national guard will embolden Israeli settlers and increase violence against Palestinians. [Getty]

Younes Arar, director of international and public relations and media for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) Colonisation and Wall Resistance Commission, said Ben-Gvir’s past criminal convictions make his decision-making and leadership volatile and unpredictable.

“You can never guarantee how he is going to run this militia,” Arar said, arguing the unit will be used against Palestinians in Israel proper and in the West Bank.

“The main goal is to exert maximum pressure on Palestinians, whether there or here, using terrorist acts against citizens to submit,” Arar told The New Arab. “It's about every Palestinian. Every Palestinian is a target.”

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