With Police Backing, Far-right Activist Sets Up Armed Group 'To Save' Israel's Negev

Former police officer Almog Cohen was set to sign over one hundred volunteers to what he envisioned as an armed citizen brigade, but marred by accusations of racism and funding issues, police take a step back

Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet
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Israeli police in the Negev in January during clashes wtih Bedouin protesters.
Israeli police in the Negev in January during clashes wtih Bedouin protesters.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet

A far-right activist has established an armed civilian unit of rangers to "save the Negev from problematic absence of personal security," amid heightened Jewish-Arab tensions in Israel's south.

The initiative was initially supported by the police and the Be’er Sheva municipality, but on Tuesday, police walked back their endorsement.

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The unit was established by Almog Cohen, a regional coordinator for Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit. Cohen said in the past that he intends to recruit “armed men with a (gun) license,” who are interested in conducting patrols in the area amid growing panic over high rates of crime and claims that Israel exercises a lack of governance in the area. 

The sparsely-populated desert region of the Negev is home to Jewish townships and the majority of Israel's Bedouin population, tens of thousands of whom live in unrecognized villages lacking basic infrastructure and services.

In January, the Jewish National Fund began a forestation plan, seen by local Bedouin as a land grab. This resulted in days-long violent clashes, which led to a heavy police crackdown.

Almog Cohen in 2013. “We are holding discussions with the bureau of Public Security Minister Bar-Lev. To their credit, they really want to help,” he said.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The unit’s website says that the volunteers would not be joining the regular civil guard, but rather act as an “independent force.”

“There are several advantages to this. Each volunteer will have the authority, even when not accompanied by a policeman; we are not dependent on political agents, we’re closer to the individual citizen," it reads.

Cohen, a former policeman, said on Wednesday that ever since he announced the initiative last October, almost 200 locals had volunteered. One hundred and thirty of the Barel Rangers had confirmed they would attend an event on Sunday to launch the enterprise, where they were meant to sign documents to become police volunteers.

The Southern District police commander, Maj. Gen. Peretz Amar, and Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich initially confirmed their participation at the launch. The Barel Rangers website and the invitations to the event said that the initiation ceremony was taking place with the cooperation of the police and the city.

Following the police's withdrawal of support, Cohen said that he may cancel the militia's launch. “We are holding discussions with the office of Public Security Minister Bar-Lev. To their credit, they really want to help,” he said.

When Cohen was asked last October by Channel 14 if he intended to take the law into his own hands or to work with the authorities, he said that they refused to wait for any bureaucracy. Early in December, at a meeting of the right-wing Knesset Caucus for the Negev, chaired by MK Shlomo Karhi of Likud, he confirmed that the police supported his initiative.

The website further says that the rangers’ unit will be divided into three parts. “One will be an intervention force, the best-trained unit which will undergo training in fighting terror and other advanced training; another will be a reconnaissance unit which will show its presence and maintain security. A third unit will be a technical one, coordinating everything from above.” According to Cohen, operations will be similar to those of the Civil Guard, which employs rapid response teams in neighborhoods.

“If there is a life-threatening situation it’s simple. Kill the source of danger.”

'It's only you and the terrorist'

The Barel Rangers are named after Border Policeman Barel Hadaria Shmueli, who was killed on the Gaza Strip border last August. In a Facebook post reflecting on Shmueli's death, Cohen wrote, “When your life is under threat, it’s only you and the terrorist. You are the policeman, the judge and the executioner…ultimately, you are soldiers on the chessboard of the despicable and hesitant politicians. There’s a threat to your life? Kill. It’s simple and easy.”

In another post, he wrote about sharpshooters who continued firing after the command to hold their fire, since they were aiming at terrorists “who deserved to be knee-capped at worst, or to take their last breath at best.”

A day after Shmueli died, Cohen wrote, “The nation expects a disproportionate blood price exacted from Hamas terrorists. The streets of Gaza should flow with blood tonight.” A week later he repeated the call. In conversation with Haaretz, Cohen explained that he never generalized to include all Arabs or Bedouin, and that he was only referring to terrorists and criminals.

Cohen is also the founder of a committee for "saving the Negev." It is described on his Facebook page as a nonpolitical organization of Negev residents who wish to address the Negev's safety problem.

The Democratic Bloc organization, which monitors anti-democratic trends in Israel, has documented conversations about the Barel Rangers on the Saving the Negev group on Telegram. In response to the killing of Rahat resident Sanad al-Harbed by undercover policemen a few days ago, one participant wrote: “Great! There are tens of thousands of others who need to meet the same fate.” Many messages in this group are similar to posts put up by Cohen. “One shouldn’t just roll one’s eyes. The true goal here is to ignite the area, not to protect citizens,” said the Democratic Bloc.

Cohen claims that people responding online are not necessarily volunteers in the Barel Rangers. The ones not identifying themselves, such as the one responding to Harbed’s death, could be trying to tarnish his organization, he said. “You won’t find cries of ‘Death to the Arabs’ here. I block things like that. When we launched our initiative, the thing we feared most was the entry of extremist elements, and then you get someone working at the Wix software company, or people from elite army units. We even have the first Bedouin volunteer.”

“It’s important for me that the Barel Rangers help enforcement agencies regardless of religion, race or gender. More importantly, they should deal relentlessly with crime, for the benefit of everyone, including the Bedouin,” says Cohen. “We love people. I don’t hate the Bedouin; I’ve worked a lot with them and I have hundreds of Bedouin friends. In four months, you’ll see our guys changing a tire for a sheikh who’s stuck by the roadside, and the misguided conception of our organization will vanish.”

In its response, the police did not address questions by Haaretz regarding the unit's description as an autonomous group under their auspices, or to concerns that the rangers will serve as cover for revenge acts against the Bedouin. They attributed their decision to distance themselves from the Barel Rangers to a crowdfunding campaign Cohen launched in order to buy equipment. He’s raised 110,000 shekels ($34,000) so far, with the target being 1.4 million shekels.

“The police announced earlier this week that it would not take part in this initiative and that the Southern District commander would not attend the launching ceremony, after it was clarified that crowdsourcing for such purposes is forbidden," a spokesperson said. "The police welcome citizens wishing to volunteer, as long as this takes place according to police procedures. The crowdfunding in this case was done through a nonprofit group that also raised money for the funding of Netanyahu’s trial."

The Be’er Sheva municipality was not aware that police withdrew their support for the event. It was described as an initiative of volunteer residents meant to enhance personal security. “They will operate under police auspices, with their approval and cooperation. The city has clarified that the organization needs police approval before the city cooperates with it.”

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