TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on Sunday gave preliminary approval for the creation of a national guard overseen by an ultranationalist Cabinet minister with a long record of anti-Arab rhetoric and stunts.
Netanyahu agreed to move ahead on the force last week after he postponed a contentious government plan to overhaul the judiciary as a way to keep National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir from quitting the coalition.
Critics say the new force is effectively a personal militia for Ben-Gvir, a former far-right activist who has been convicted several times for incitement and support for a Jewish terror group. Ben-Gvir says the force is meant to fill in gaps in areas where police are spread thin, including in crime-ridden Arab communities, as well as dealing with Arab-Jewish violence and other issues.
The force is expected to enlist hundreds at first and cost millions of dollars. The recruits’ precise duties and authorities were unclear.
Netanyahu’s office said Sunday that his Cabinet approved the establishment of the force, but that a committee comprised of Israel’s existing security agencies would determine the guard’s authorities and whether it would be subordinate to the police, or take orders directly from Ben-Gvir, as he demands. The committee has 90 days to make its recommendations.
The idea of a national guard was already in the works, created by a previous government after Arab-Jewish violence broke out in mixed cities in May 2021 during a war with Hamas. But Ben-Gvir’s desire to have it answer to him rather than to police is what has sparked criticism.
The force comes at a time of surging tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which has led to one of the deadliest periods in those territories in years.
Ben-Gvir, a hardline West Bank settler, has repeatedly carried out what the Palestinians view as provocations, like visiting a sensitive Jerusalem holy site, and the idea of a force loyal to him is seen by many as problematic.
It remains to be seen whether the plan will be implemented. The force requires a change in current legislation to become official, and Netanyahu has reneged on promises to his political partners in the past.
Israeli media reported that the current police chief, Kobi Shabtai, opposes the new guard.
In a letter to Ben-Gvir and Netanyahu, Shabtai said the force was “needless” and that it could cause greater harm than good because it would confuse citizens and officers, the reports said. Moshe Karadi, a former police chief, said Saturday it was dangerous to grant a politician such power, suggesting Ben-Gvir could use the force to stage a coup.
Other government ministers also reportedly objected to their budgets being cut to allocate funds for the new force.
Netanyahu’s decision to grant the force to Ben-Gvir also revved up a robust anti-government protest movement, which has been demonstrating for nearly three months against the overhaul and which has pledged to stand against the new guard. Tens of thousands protested again on Saturday night, despite the overhaul having been paused.
Protesters on Saturday dressed up as mock recruits for Ben-Gvir’s force, wearing black uniforms with their faces covered and chanting “with blood, with fire, we’ll protect the tyrant.”
Tens of thousands of Israelis spilled into the streets last week in a spontaneous burst of anger and workers went on strike after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, who had urged the prime minister to put the overhaul on hold, citing concerns about the damage to the military. Netanyahu paused the overhaul in response to the protests.