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Israel's Pandora's box of violent extremism

Itamar Ben-Gvir and Israel's Pandora's box of violent extremism
8 min read
27 May, 2024
In-depth: The rise to prominence of Itamar Ben-Gvir and other extremists has placed a radical ideology at the heart of political power in Israel.

Houses and cars burnt to ashes, sheep killed or stolen, two Palestinians shot dead, and dozens wounded. Last month, Israeli settlers unleashed a wave of violence all over the occupied West Bank.

More than 1,500 settlers attacked al-Mughayyir and a dozen other villages in mid-April. Using the kidnapping and killing of a 14-year-old settler as an excuse, they targeted cars, houses, agricultural tools, and livestock. Attacks are still ongoing, with houses being burnt in Duma and other villages south of Nablus in recent weeks.

“The situation in al-Mughayyir and other villages is unbearable. The violence has reached levels we’ve never witnessed before,” Yasmeen El-Hasan, coordinator of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a Ramallah-based grassroots organisation helping Palestinian farmers, told The New Arab.

The attacks caused an international outcry, as well as hefty discussions inside Israel, with five settlers facing arrest. But they quickly found support from a high-standing saviour: Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s infamous far-right minister of national security.

Saying the “persecution” of settlers is “antisemitic”, Ben-Gvir, who chairs the religious Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, praised them and promised to defend them, as he often did as a lawyer before becoming part of the government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2022, the most far right in Israel’s history.

Enabling settler violence

For many Palestinians, the ultranationalist minister is actively encouraging settler violence, becoming one of the most hated figures in the occupied West Bank.

“The hordes of settlers that swept all over Palestinian villages were emboldened by Ben-Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich's ideological and material support of settler militias throughout the West Bank, even more so after 7 October,” El-Hasan said.

After Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel, which left 1,200 dead, the Israeli government encouraged the formation and training of defence units for settlements – and has since expanded their role. Ben-Gvir also heads the Israeli border police in the West Bank, known as the Magav.

“There is no distinction on the ground between the IOF and the settlers, who often attack while wearing army fatigues and are part of the reserves," El-Hasan said, using the IOF acronym (Israeli Occupation Forces) in reference to the Israeli army.

She added that in some places, settlers have set up roadblocks and checkpoints, much like the Israeli army.

Collaboration between soldiers and settlers has been recorded by Jewish activists in the West Bank, who also face the wrath of Ben-Gvir’s policies.

“Because of him, we are far more at risk of violence and arrest than before,” Alma Shibolet, an Israeli-Jewish anti-occupation activist, told The New Arab.

The activist has spent most of her time since 7 October in the South Hebron Hills, protecting Palestinian shepherds and villagers from settler attacks, army raids, and police detention. Doing so, she has faced physical violence and sexual harassment from both settlers and soldiers, who have called her a “self-hating Jew” and a “slut”.

Many of her fellow activists have recently been arrested and banned from the West Bank as Ben-Gvir formed a new police force tasked with pursuing “anarchists who harm state security” after a hearing at a Knesset sub-commission in March.

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Ben-Gvir's rise to fame

Insulting other Israeli politicians, repressing Jewish peace activists, and inciting hatred against Palestinians are only a few things Ben-Gvir is infamous for, as his more than 50 criminal charges and 2007 conviction for incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organisation suggest.

Born in 1976 to a conservative Mizrahi family, he became part of Kahanist youth parties and organisations, a right-wing religious Zionist movement founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane. Affirming the religious right of Jews to all of Palestine, it advocates the expulsion or killing of Palestinians from the Holy Land as a messianic mission.

As a teenager, Ben-Gvir opposed the Oslo Accords agreed by then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin – and even stole an ornament from his car’s hood, threatening to “get to him” just a few weeks before his actual assassination by a far-right Jewish gunman.

Ben-Gvir soon then began a tumultuous career as a lawyer, defending many violent religious settlers. In parallel, Ben-Gvir became known for his controversial TV appearances, slamming his Palestinian, LGBTQIA+, and liberal opponents.

Hundreds of Israeli settlers went on a violent rampage in Huwara and other Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank in February 2023. [Getty]

“The media absolutely loves him. If he’s in front of the camera, you know he’ll say something wild and offensive - and get the best ratings,” Ido Dembin, a lawyer and executive director of Molad, a liberal Israeli think-tank, said.

Itamar Ben-Gvir has, since then, become a symbol of Israel’s violent far right. His most famous controversies include installing his party’s office in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem and repeatedly visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

For years, he was well-known for hanging a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the Kahanist terrorist who killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the 1994 Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in Hebron, on the wall of his home, calling him his “hero”.

Ben-Gvir’s popularity rose while that of Netanyahu’s was sinking, paying the price of his entanglement in corruption lawsuits. "'Bibi' became a pariah for potential centre-left coalition partners, so he saved his position by forging an alliance with far-right politicians such as Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich,” a settler who became minister of finance and of settlement affairs, Dembin explained.

During the 2022 elections, Ben-Gvir’s and Smotrich’s political parties joined forces and won 14  seats – with both becoming important ministers in Netanyahu’s government.

“Their power far exceeds their actual share of votes and popularity,” Dembin said. “But Netanyahu needs them, and they have nothing to lose”.

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Ben-Gvir, a tornado in Israeli politics

Since their ascent to power, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have been shifting Israeli politics towards the far right, analysts say. “They are awful statesmen, but they are managing to shape Israeli politics to suit their own followers by pursuing ‘tough’ security policies,” Dembin explains.

Ben-Gvir has politicised the police “more than any other minister before him”, he believes. The minister regularly appoints right-wing police officers, gives aggressive instructions to anti-riot police during weekly anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv, and rewards the most violent policemen.

“He is shaping a police force that swears allegiance to him and shares his ideology,” Dembin said.

Ben-Gvir’s other political actions include handing out 100,000 gun licenses and 10,000 assault rifles to Israelis and advocating for re-colonising Gaza.

In a similar vein, finance and settlements minister Smotrich has been pursuing the objective of expanding the West Bank settler population to one million by 2050. Recently, he has moved to seize 800 hectares of Palestinian land in the West Bank and build 3,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem alone.

Settler violence has been actively encouraged by Ben-Gvir and other far-right ministers. [Getty]

“As one of the highest-ranking ministers of the cabinet, he has channelled over 700 billion shekels to promote settlements,” Dembin said. “His political plan, called Definitive Victory, means nothing less than the total annexation of the West Bank. Palestinians can either accept this, leave, or be killed in combat,” he added.

“It is essential to remember that Ben-Gvir’s and Smotrich’s motivation is religious and that they use the argument of security for the sake of attracting disappointed Netanyahu voters - whereas their policies have not in fact proven to be better for Israel's security.”

At the same time, they exert a strong influence on a flailing Netanyahu. Both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have threatened to leave the government if Israel didn’t launch a large assault on Rafah or if it accepted a hostage deal with Hamas.


Despite their sudden rise to fame, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s power in the government remains limited. “They’re not running the show, and even got sidelined and excluded from the war council,” says Nimrod Goren, an analyst at the Middle East Institute.

“There is a strong pushback against them, and most Israelis still don’t support them,” he explained.

"Nevertheless, their current ministerial positions empower them and their supporters, and their actions negatively impact Israel's regional ties, democratic nature, and social cohesion."

From General Gadi Eisenkot to Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid, many high-ranking figures have slammed Smotrich and Ben-Gvir over various controversies.

They also draw fire from Israeli civil society. A legal petition aimed to remove Ben-Gvir from the government, while Israeli newspaper Haaretz called for the dismissal of Smotrich as finance minister over his “repeated calls for genocide” against Palestinians.

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Smotrich also came under direct criticism from Biden’s government after granting recognition to 68 West Bank settler outposts, which are illegal under international law. Such policies are “dangerous and reckless”, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said two weeks ago.

In recent months, the US, EU, and several other countries have sanctioned Israeli settlers close to Ben-Gvir, accusing them of being particularly violent against Palestinians.

“Ben-Gvir’s and Smotrich’s surroundings are being delegitimised internationally, the sanctions are getting closer to them gradually,” Goren added.

The impact of such international sanctions, however, has been questioned by Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

The Israeli far right is seeking a complete annexation of the occupied West Bank. [Getty]

A repackaging of settler colonialism

“Of course, the real problem is not Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, but Israel’s existence as a settler colonial state,” Alma Shibolet, the Jewish anti-occupation activist, said.

“They merely state the obvious and make the horrors of the occupation more visible,” she added. “While it is true that they make the situation far more dangerous for both Palestinians and Jewish activists, we have to target the whole system”.

She says she is “scared” by Israel’s turn to the far right. “This place has never been a real democracy, but it is getting more authoritarian by the day.”

Palestinians have been experiencing this extremist shift on the ground for decades. “Ben-Gvir and Smotrich embolden settler violence, but settler colonialism is inherent to Israel’s foundation,” UAWC’s Yasmeen El-Hasan said.

“Smotrich and Ben-Gvir do draw criticism from some liberal Israelis, as they are far-right and very explicit with their genocidal intent. But settler colonialism is settler colonialism, regardless of how it is packaged,” she explained.

“But this violence has never been hidden to us, Palestinians – and the recent increase in intensity has very real consequences for us.”

Philippe Pernot is a French-German photojournalist living in Beirut. Covering anarchist, environmentalist, and queer social movements, he is now the Lebanon correspondent for Frankfurter Rundschau and an editor for various international media. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PhilippePernot7