Ben Gvir overrules police on freezing wind farm project, despite riots – reports

Far-right minister vows work will continue despite two days of protests, violence; police chief reportedly wanted contentious work paused until after next week’s Eid al-Adha

Druze community members protest against the construction of a new wind farm in the Golan Heights, June 21, 2023 (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)
Druze community members protest against the construction of a new wind farm in the Golan Heights, June 21, 2023 (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Construction work continued on a contentious wind farm on Thursday, after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir reportedly overruled Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who wanted to freeze work on the project following protests and rioting from Druze residents of the Golan Heights.

According to a number of reports, police initially ordered the work on the wind turbines to be stopped in the wake of the protests, before reversing that decision and allowing the work to continue.

The Israel Police issued a statement denying the reports, saying that such a decision lay solely with the political establishment.

In a statement, Ben Gvir, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, said that he had conveyed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the work “must continue.”

“In any case, the work was not planned to continue during the holiday that takes place on Tuesday, but we must not give in to violence and stop the works before the holiday,” he said.

The Walla news site reported that Shabtai believed the work should be paused until at least after next week’s Eid al-Adha holiday, but Ben Gvir told the outlet that “capitulation for even a week is capitulation.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, right, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted that “surrendering to the violence and anarchy of a handful of extremist and violent Druze in the Golan Heights (very different from the majority of the Druze community in the Galilee) and the cessation of work to build the turbines would be a failure of the rule of law, and must not be agreed to.”

Smotrich, of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said he gave his full backing to Ben Gvir and called on Netanyahu to do so as well.

Senior defense officials told Haaretz that Ben Gvir pushed for the construction work to go ahead, despite the fact that intelligence assessments had predicted it could lead to violence.

Ben Gvir and Shabtai — who are known to have a fractious relationship, with the minister reportedly deciding not to extend the police chief’s tenure as is customary — were expected to meet with Druze leaders later Thursday. Netanyahu’s office said he had met with a Druze spiritual leader on Wednesday afternoon as officials tried to defuse the situation.

Thousands of Druze residents of the Golan Heights protested and rioted on Tuesday and Wednesday against the construction of a new wind farm near the town of Majdal Shams, burning tires and hurling rocks, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at massive police forces securing the area.

Twelve police officers were wounded. Eight demonstrators were wounded — four of them seriously, including one from gunfire.

The protests were held in several locations. Police said they had escalated into masses of people blocking roads and trying to storm the police position in the town of Mas’ade, and some using live fire.

Israel has sought to veer its energy production increasingly toward clean methods, with wind power an important component of those plans. The Energy Ministry has said in the past that the Golan Heights, with its high altitude and windswept valleys, is an optimal location for wind farms.

But the plan has angered Druze villagers who see the project as a threat to their agrarian way of life, an encroachment on ancestral lands and a solidification of what they view as Israel’s occupation of the territory.

A station of wind turbines in the Golan Heights, June 20, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

They contend that the giant, soaring poles and the infrastructure needed to construct them will impede their ability to work their plots. They also say the turbines will disturb the almost sacred bond they feel to their land, which is passed down by generation and where families go for fresh air and green space.

Landowners who signed lease agreements with Energix, the company behind the project, say they weren’t made aware of the potential implications of having turbines on their plot. They say they were tempted by hefty sums into signing what they describe as draconian leases that, coupled with a boycott on the company imposed by influential religious leaders, have made many want to withdraw.

Energix on Thursday claimed without evidence that the protests were being stoked by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“Pro-Syrian nationalist ideologies lead a handful of opponents, who are working to prevent the establishment of a national project of the State of Israel on the grounds that it is being established on occupied Syrian lands,” the company said in a statement to Walla.

“It is unacceptable for Syrian and pro-Syrian extremists and instigators led by President Assad… to threaten the population, while imposing fear on private landowners who are legally contracted with the company to establish the project,” Energix reportedly said.

Police said in statements Tuesday and Wednesday that the deals were all legal and that all the payments have been completed, and condemned the “thuggish and violent” behavior of the rioters.

Members of the Druze community set tires aflame as they protest against an Israeli wind turbine project planned in agricultural lands near the village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on June 21, 2023. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed the territory in 1981 — a move that was not internationally recognized until the administration of former US president Donald Trump did so in 2019.

The Golan’s 26,000 Druze, belonging to an offshoot of Islam, speak Hebrew and hold Israeli residency status that gives them the right to travel and work freely. The area is also home to some 22,000 Israeli Jews, and is a popular destination for Israeli tourists.

But most of the Druze residents have chosen not to take Israeli citizenship — meaning they do not vote in national elections and therefore have no elected representatives in the Knesset — and many still feel inextricably linked to Syria, though that has slowly been changing with more and more Druze quietly applying for citizenship.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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