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Op-ed

Itamar Ben Gvir’s incendiary patriot games

MK banned from Damascus Gate presents himself as a flag-waving defender of Israel, but shows indifference to the deadly dangers, including to Israelis, he risks exacerbating

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction of the Religious Zionist party, raises an Israeli flag in Safra Square in Jerusalem on April 20, 2022, at the start of a planned nationalist march. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction of the Religious Zionist party, raises an Israeli flag in Safra Square in Jerusalem on April 20, 2022, at the start of a planned nationalist march. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

When you elect extremists to your parliament, it is hardly shocking that they purvey extremism. The Religious Zionism party’s Itamar Ben Gvir is a terrifying case in point.

Ben Gvir, a disciple of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, is a longtime political provocateur who first came to most Israelis’ attention when he brandished the Cadillac emblem stolen from Yitzhak Rabin’s car, weeks before the prime minister was assassinated in 1995, and boasted, “We got to his car and we’ll get to him, too.”

An astute and wily operator, who went on to train and qualify as a lawyer, Ben Gvir in recent years turned his attentions to politics, and after an initial failure to get elected to the Knesset, won a seat in last year’s elections when his Otzma Yehudit faction was merged into Religious Zionism’s slate, in an arrangement brokered, shamefully, by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now enjoying parliamentary immunity, Ben Gvir has been a frequent presence at the height of tension in East Jerusalem’s disputed Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood — setting up an office in the area amid skyrocketing friction days before Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem in what turned into an 11-day war last May.

On Wednesday, he championed a hurriedly arranged Israeli nationalists’ march that was intended to parade to the Western Wall via East Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate and Muslim Quarter — a transparent bid to add fuel to the flames of violence that has been escalating in Jerusalem in recent days.

Police refused to authorize the route, but the marchers assembled nonetheless, and scuffled with the cops who intercepted them.

In a highly unusual move, shortly before the march was set to start, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett banned Ben Gvir from the Damascus Gate area, after security chiefs warned that his presence could contribute to a far greater escalation of violence and loss of life.

According to a Wednesday evening report on Channel 12 news, a submission by the Shin Bet security service to the discussion with Bennett and other defense chiefs that led to the ban described Ben Gvir as “a detonator” of potential violence who required defusing. The TV report said security chiefs were concerned that allowing Ben Gvir and the marchers into East Jerusalem could bring an upsurge in violence similar to last May’s war — including rocket barrages from Gaza, clashes in Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities and more trouble in Jerusalem.

To tackle such a conflict, Israel’s various security organizations would have to divert considerable resources from their upscaled operations in recent weeks against potential terrorists in the West Bank, after 14 Israelis were killed in four attacks. The Israel Police already has its hands full facing Palestinian rioters at the disputed Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound.

Hearing the security chiefs’ assessment, Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz immediately accepted the recommendation to bar Ben Gvir from the area, the report said.

Ben Gvir himself attended the gathering of would-be marchers in Safra Square, a short distance from the Old City, on Wednesday afternoon. He questioned the legality of the ban, and sought to defy the police deployments blocking participants from heading to Damascus Gate. Frustrated, he said he would return to last year’s tactic of setting up an office in the area.

Related: Kahane lives? What does Itamar Ben Gvir, backed by Netanyahu, really stand for?

Like so many other dangerous extremists, Ben Gvir presents himself as a patriotic defender of the nation, surrounded by followers waving the Israeli flag and chanting for the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens.

What he underlined on Wednesday was his indifference to the likelihood — as assessed by the security chiefs whose job it is to protect this country — of his actions exacerbating the risks of the spilling of blood, both of Israel’s enemies and the citizens on whose behalf he claims to act.

And he’s not done yet.

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