ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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Ben Gvir denies folding Border Police into National Guard would create private army

National security minister say planned move is aimed at beefing up policing, rejects critics’ assertions he is seeking to build militia answerable to his ministry

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L) speaks with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a car-ramming attack near Jerusalem's Ramot, February 10, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L) speaks with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a car-ramming attack near Jerusalem's Ramot, February 10, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Monday pushed back against warnings from opposition and defense officials, asserting that he is “not trying to create a private army” with his plan to change the positioning of the Border Police within the security establishment.

The far-right minister said that his plan to fold the force into an intended national guard will instead supplement manpower in areas that receive scant policing, such as the southern Negev region.

Members of the political opposition and defense establishment have cautioned against giving Ben Gvir control over the Border Police, asserting that he may use it to build a militia directly answerable to his ministerial office, rather than to the Israel Defense Forces or police chains of command.

Ben Gvir in January said that the National Guard would fall under Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai’s command, rather than under his direct authority as proposed in Otzma Yehudit’s December coalition agreement.

However, Ben Gvir is currently pushing for contentious legislation to make the police commissioner formally subordinate to the national security minister.

Ben Gvir confirmed to the Times of Israel on Monday that he still plans to incorporate the entirety of the Border Police into a new National Guard, as part of a push to boost the policing power of an understaffed force, although it was unclear how the move would accomplish that goal.

Israeli border police secure take position while an army bulldozer clears the rubble from a road that was closed by Palestinian protesters during minor clashes in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Jan. 30, 2020. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

This would include bringing Border Police units currently deployed in the West Bank under military operational command across the Green Line, into Israel, to join National Guard operations.

Earlier this year, then-IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi cautioned that removing Border Police units from their West Bank roles would force the IDF to draw more heavily on reserve troops as replacements.

While the Border Police does indeed play a role in guarding the nation’s borders, it also engages in a versatile list of missions, including counterterrorism, riot control and undercover work.

It is formally a part of the police and ultimately reports to the police commissioner, although parts of it fall under the military’s operational command.

Much of the Border Police’s work involves policing Palestinians, leading to further concerns about the force coming under the control of the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

Ben Gvir has yet to release detailed information on his planned National Guard’s budget, command structure, specific areas of authority, or intended capabilities.

Border Police officers guard at the Mahane Yehuda Market in central Jerusalem, September 30, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir lobbied for expanded powers as part of his rebranded National Security Ministry. In addition to pushing to change the command structure vis-s-vis the police minister, he also wants to give himself wide powers to develop policy on investigations and police prosecution. The attorney general’s office has objected, saying it would undermine the police force’s independence. Committee debate on these provisions restarted in early February.

In December, the incoming coalition squeaked through a law to define the subordination of the Israel Police to the government, and affixed into law the understanding that the national security minister can set the force’s general policy.

Ben Gvir in January presented a framework for the National Guard, which had some similar characteristics to an arrangement proposed by his predecessor, former public security minister Omer Barlev, and then-prime minister Naftali Bennett. However, the earlier plan saw the Border Police operating alongside the National Guard, rather than as part of it.

Barlev and Bennett approved a plan to create an “Israeli Guard” composed of active-duty and reserve officers and volunteers trained by Border Police professionals. Since the announcement last June, the idea has struggled to find purchase.

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