Gantz warns of ‘serious harm’ if Ben Gvir assumes control of West Bank Border Police

Incoming national security minister is seeking to take over unit charged with riot control, arrests and manning checkpoints throughout West Bank

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

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in Ramat Gan, November 29, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a press conference in Ramat Gan, November 29, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Wednesday that allowing the incoming far-right police minister Itamar Ben Gvir to take control of the West Bank Border Police would cause “serious harm” to security.

“I think that transferring the authority over the Judea and Samaria Border Police would do serious harm,” the defense minister said at a press conference in Ramat Gan. Judea and Samaria, the biblical terms for the West Bank, are also the military’s terminology for the area.

Ben Gvir is slated to become national security minister in the right-wing and religious government forming under presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The newly created position of national security minister is functionally that of a public security minister with expanded powers. Among them, Ben Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, has secured commitments to place the West Bank’s Border Police unit under his control and pass legislation to expand his authority over broader police policy.

Gantz, in response, asserted that the military’s operational and command structure should remain independent from political control.

“While the chief of staff and IDF commanders are subject to the decisions of the political echelon, they have the authority and responsibility to manage the IDF’s operational and command activities,” he said.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“I know that you will retain national responsibility… but at the same time never bow your head to a political pressure system,” the defense minister added in remarks directed at IDF commanders.

Ben Gvir has challenged the police’s independent command structure, pushing to slacken open-fire rules to permit security forces to shoot anyone holding a stone or firebomb.

Military open-fire rules are currently decided by IDF commanders, and for police by their own respective chain of command. Border Police forces in the West Bank, however, are subordinate to the military and follow its open-fire rules.

Lightning-rod Ben Gvir never served in the military, but has gained popularity with a promise to return personal security amid a spate of terror attacks, internal violence, and alleged lack of governance in Israel’s rural north and south.

He has also built his brand by vociferously backing IDF soldiers, even when they break their own commanders’ rules. This week, Ben Gvir came out strongly against the IDF’s decision to discipline a soldier for taunting left-wing activists in Hebron, although Ben Gvir also pushed back against attacks on the commander who sentenced the soldier.

A Givati soldier is seen confronting an activist in the West Bank city of Hebron, November 25, 2022. (Screenshot: Breaking the Silence)

Joining a chorus of security and political officials warning against politicizing soldiers, Gantz warned that using soldiers in a political tug of war is “liable to erode the unity and command authority of the IDF, thus posing a tangible and significant danger to the resilience of the IDF and to the national security of the State of Israel.”

On Monday, Gantz warned that Ben Gvir is building a private militia in the West Bank that could endanger lives and “lead to the severance of coordination with the Palestinians and a security escalation.”

Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit was the first party to sign a coalition deal with Likud last week, although the agreement largely focused on the allocation of roles to the far-right party and remains incomplete.

Among policy points agreed upon between Likud and Otzma Yehudit, Likud committed to legalizing illegal West Bank outposts, legalizing the Jewish yeshiva that has persisted on evacuated outpost Homesh, and establishing a yeshiva at vacated outpost Evyatar.

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