Cabinet vote Sunday on Ben Gvir bid for 2,000-strong national guard under his command

Far-right minister says force will target ‘lack of governance,’ terror, nationalistic and organized crime and illegal firearms; demonstrators protest plan; critics say it’s illegal

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in Jerusalem's Old City on the first Friday prayers of Ramadan, March 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in Jerusalem's Old City on the first Friday prayers of Ramadan, March 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ultranationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir will ask the government on Sunday to approve the creation of a national guard force with 2,000 service members who will answer directly to him, according to a proposal published Wednesday night.

Based on the text of a resolution to be considered by the cabinet, the national guard will be tasked with tackling “nationalist crime,” terrorism and “restoring governance where needed.”

Ben Gvir, who heads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, has talked repeatedly about ending so-called lawlessness in parts of the Negev which has a prominent Arab Bedouin community, while sources close to him have said the national guard will also seek to “restore governance” in mixed Jewish-Arab cities such as Lod and Ramle.

But civil rights groups as well as opposition politicians have expressed extreme concern over the proposal to bring such a force under the direct control of a government minister, arguing that it could politicize policing and undermine the principle of equality in law enforcement.

The text of the resolution states that it will establish the Israel National Guard under the authority of the National Security Ministry.

In a statement announcing the decision on Wednesday, Ben Gvir called the force “a basic critical need for the State of Israel, without which we will not be able to protect the security of our citizens in order to fight terrorism, the phenomenon of protection, nationalist crime and restore governance to the cities of Israel.”

The proposed resolution determines that “the Israel National Guard will be used as a special force to deal with different emergency situations, nationalist crimes, the fight against terrorism and strengthening governance in regions where it is required.”

File: Border Police officers guard the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 19, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If the resolution is approved, Ben Gvir will establish a committee comprising representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, Defense Ministry, Justice Ministry, Finance Ministry, Israel Police and IDF to implement the establishment of the force.

That committee will formalize the areas of operation for the national guard, establish a chain of command, explore the possibility of transferring special units of the Border Police to the new force, and give the minister authority to issue draft orders to national guard reservists at times of emergency. It will also look at budgeting requirements and other issues.

The committee will need to present its recommendations for establishing the force to Ben Gvir within 60 days of its establishment.

Legislation will also be drawn up to anchor the authorities of the national guard in law.

In the explanatory notes of Ben Gvir’s resolution, it is noted that a national guard was established by the last government as part of the response to the severe riots witnessed in mixed Jewish-Arab cities in May 2021, in order for the government to more swiftly respond to such outbreaks of inter-communal violence.

Some have questioned the need for Ben Gvir’s force, given the guard established by the last government and other existing units that perform the same tasks, such as the police and Border Police.

The resolution states that the new body will “allow the police to concentrate on its traditional, core, [and] routine tasks, management of which has been harmed by repeated incidents of disturbances and emergency situations,” which police have needed to deal with.

The national guard unit established by the previous government in 2022 is currently under the authority of the Israel Police and comprises only a few hundred personnel derived mostly from the Border Police, which is itself a gendarmerie force.

The resolution says that the new national guard force will be comprised of “regular forces and tactical, dedicated brigades” spread out nationwide.

Publication of the draft resolution comes two days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to bring it to a vote on Sunday in return for Ben Gvir agreeing to suspend the passage of the government’s controversial judicial overhaul legislation following mass protests, strikes and unrest against the plan.

Protesters returned to the streets in Tel Aviv and several other cities Wednesday night to demonstrate against Ben Gvir’s proposal.

Protesters rally in Tel Aviv against far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and the proposed formation of a National Guard on March 29, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

A spokesperson for Netanyahu did not immediately respond to questions as to whether the prime minister and the government will back the resolution.

On Tuesday, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to express deep concern over the establishment of a national guard were it to come under the direct authority of Ben Gvir.

The organization said such a force, separated off from the Israel Police, would undermine democracy and equal enforcement of the law in Israel.

ACRI also asserted that the guard would politicize law enforcement and create a two-tiered policing system in the country with Ben Gvir’s force deployed against the Arab community in particular.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (courtesy, Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a letter to the attorney general on Tuesday, ACRI wrote that “establishing an armed force subject to the national security minister and separate from the police” would be an “illegitimate” step and highly problematic for law enforcement in Israel.

“A police force subject to a political official is a clear and present danger to democracy and human rights,” the organization wrote, adding that “police independence is a condition for equal and unbiased law enforcement.”

ACRI specifically noted a ruling earlier this month by the High Court of Justice explicitly instructing Ben Gvir that it is illegal for him to give direct orders to the police regarding the policing of anti-government protests, as the minister has done on numerous occasions since taking office.

Given the far-right minister’s already established proclivity to interfere directly in police operational tactics, ACRI said, the establishment of a national guard under Ben Gvir’s direct authority would “directly endanger the public’s freedom of expression and protest.”

A source close to Ben Gvir insisted that the force would tackle crime in both Jewish and Arab society.

National Security Minister Itamar ben Gvir, left, and Israeli Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai at a ceremony for the opening of a new police station in the Neot Hovav Industrial zone, southern Israel, March 14, 2023. (Flash90)

Ben Gvir has repeatedly involved himself directly in the policing of the massive demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul program, including telling the police which highways to leave open during the protests, discussing the methods of crowd dispersal and visiting police command centers while demonstrations were underway.

Speaking to Radio Nas on Tuesday, former deputy public security minister MK Yoav Segalovitz of Yesh Atid strongly criticized the notion of placing a national guard under the authority of the minister, but said he did not believe such a step would happen.

“The fact that someone thinks that in Israel someone can have a political function in the responsibility over law enforcement. It won’t pass legally or constitutionally… It would destroy the Israel Police. We won’t let it happen.”

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