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As political tensions heat up, Shin Bet defends barring Ben Gvir over security risk

In rare comment, security service says allowing MK to march in Old City last week would have caused significant harm; Bennett said to blame right-wing incitement for death threats

MK Itamar Ben Gvir joins right-wing activists participating in a 'flag march,' planned to reach Jerusalem's Old City, but ultimately stopping beforehand at Tzahal Square, on April 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir joins right-wing activists participating in a 'flag march,' planned to reach Jerusalem's Old City, but ultimately stopping beforehand at Tzahal Square, on April 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Shin Bet security service issued a rare public statement Friday justifying its decision to recommend barring extreme right-wing MK Itamar Ben Gvir from leading a nationalist march through Jerusalem’s Old City last week, saying his presence would have resulted in “significant harm” to Israel’s security.

The Shin Bet statement came hours after Ben Gvir unleashed a barrage of criticism at the agency, accusing its leader Ronen Bar of spending time on restricting his movement rather than fighting terror.

“The Shin Bet wants to clarify: In the last month, the Shin Bet has passed on several recommendations aimed at strengthening security and preventing an escalation on all fronts,” the statement said.

“The Shin Bet is aware of the importance of freedom of movement — generally — and specifically for members of Knesset. However, in a very rare move, a recommendation was sent, supported by intelligence, indicating an almost certain significant harm to the state’s security,” the Shin Bet said.

“The obligation and purpose of the Shin Bet are to prevent actions that can lead to an escalation of the security situation that can lead to harm to citizens, IDF soldiers and police,” it said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a meeting with Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar (R), his military secretary Avi Gil and other security officials, on April 2, 2022. (Shin Bet)

Hours earlier, Ben Gvir, from the extremist Otzma Yehudit faction, accused the Shin Bet of dropping the ball on security, blaming Bar for recent clashes at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, terror attacks in late March and early April in Beersheba, Bnei Brak, Hadera and Tel Aviv, and increased tensions in Gaza, including renewed rocket fire.

“While the Temple Mount is burning and terror attacks are increasing, the Shin Bet needs to deal with the security of the nation and not briefings against me,” Ben Gvir wrote on Twitter.

According to reports, the Shin Bet had recommended last week that Ben Gvir be blocked from leading a nationalist march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City for fear of sparking a wider conflict.

The march was planned amid sky-high tensions in the region, with near-daily clashes between Palestinians and police on the Temple Mount and Gazan groups threatening to renew rocket fire. Officials feared allowing the march to go ahead could have sparked a repeat of the May 2021 war between Israel and Hamas-led fighters in Gaza.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett subsequently declared that Ben Gvir would be barred from the Damascus Gate area, and the marchers were also prevented from entering the Old City via that route.

“Ben Gvir’s arrival is a detonator, and a detonator must be defused,” media reports quoted a Shin Bet official as saying said last week. “These provocations could lead to further violence and a ramping up of tensions to the point of setting the whole region in flames.”

However, Shin Bet officials on Friday denied that this phrase had been used.

Bennett and other top government politicians slammed Ben Gvir for his comments Friday, backing Bar against the attack.

“His actions are cowardly and anti-Israeli, meant to set the country ablaze through jealousy and chaos,” Bennett said of Ben Gvir.

Responding to the criticism, Ben Gvir later accused Bennett of using the Shin Bet for his own political needs and accused the group of inciting against him.

Setting up another possible showdown, Channel 12 reported Friday that Ben Gvir was now considering visiting the Temple Mount on Israel’s Independence Day next week.

The Jerusalem Old City site is the holiest place in Judaism, as the location of the two biblical temples, and home to Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. Israel captured the Old City and East Jerusalem from its Jordanian occupiers in the 1967 war and extended sovereignty there. It allows Jews to visit but not pray there; the Muslim Waqf trust administers the holy sites atop the mount, known in Arabic as the Haram al-Sharif, or Holy Sanctuary.

Palestinians hurl stones toward Israeli police during clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 22, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Bennett has taken heavy fire from former right-wing allies for efforts to calm tensions around Jerusalem, including allowing police to bar non-Muslims from visiting the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound from Friday until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 1 — a policy that has been in place for years.

Amid the super-heated political atmosphere, Bennett and his family this week received two separate letters containing death threats and a bullet.

Channel 12 reported that both letters included a direct threat to Bennett to either resign from office or his family would be “harmed.”

The second letter, received Thursday, was addressed to Bennett’s 15-year-old son Yoni, and was sent to Bennett’s home in Ra’anana.

Bennett has not commented on the threats publicly. However, Channel 12 reported Friday that Bennett had privately blamed politicians on the right who have accused his government of betraying the country for the letters.

“If they hear lies all day on social media, that there’s a crook who’s sold the state to Hamas, pays them billions, and abandons [Israel’s] security because of [Ra’am and] the Islamic Movement, then it’s logical that there’ll be more than a few people who’ll be willing to pay a price in order to stop this,” he was quoted as saying in the unsourced report.

Channel 13 news reported that people close to Bennett have expressed fears recently that the threats are not empty talk and a politician could be assassinated in the near future.

Among those under threat are Bennett, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked or other Yamina MKs, and the Shin Bet’s Bar.

Hebrew media highlighted dozens of social media posts that had Bar dressed in Nazi uniform and another site that posted pictures of government politicians with Hitler mustaches.

The posts are reminiscent of right-wing posters that were frequently seen prior to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in which he was pictured in a Nazi SS uniform or wearing a Palestinian headdress.

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