The leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, signed the first coalition agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud on Friday. The right-wing bloc’s new poster boy ran a campaign appealing to “personal security,” and never concealed his ambition for one particular portfolio: the Public Security Ministry – in charge of Israel’s police.
After a record haul of 14 seats for his joint ticket with Religious Zionism, Ben-Gvir used his strengthened hand to not only secure the position, but also to secure expanded powers for the renamed National Security Ministry.
Already overseeing Israel’s police, as well as other areas spanning prisons and firearm licensing, the beefed-up portfolio is set to absorb enforcement agencies from other ministries, making Ben-Gvir the most powerful police minister to date. While the minister does not have the authority to decide on operational or disciplinary matters, he will be able to dictate resource allocations and install more pliable, political appointees.
Haaretz explains how the newly-expanded ministry could look in the hands of the far-right.
A personal militia?
Itamar Ben-Gvir’s new office will take over control of the Border Police in the West Bank from the Israeli army, splitting the responsibility with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai.
The incoming minister would essentially have free rein over the 2,000-strong force, including an undercover unit that enters Palestinian-controlled territory in the West Bank.
The Border Police division’s responsibilities include carrying out arrests and dealing with public disturbances, which can mean backing up the IDF in dealing with protests in areas of the West Bank under Israeli civil control.
More contentiously for Ben-Gvir, they are responsible for evacuating illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank – an issue of paramount importance for his settler base.
One senior law enforcement source expressed concerns about the expanded powers, saying that it effectively “turns the Border Police into Ben-Gvir’s personal police in the territories,” while Defense Minister Benny Gantz said it would establish “a private army for Ben-Gvir.”
In a thread on Twitter, Gantz said that moving from a more centralized, coordinated modus operandi in the West Bank to divvying up power between the Defense Ministry and the Public Security Ministry is liable to cause “chaos.”
While the trademark green beret of the Border Police signifies the Green Line, Israel’s 1949 armistice line with its neighbors, the move could represent a further nail in the coffin for the fading border between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
Human rights group Yesh Din told Haaretz that such a move would mean that the police “will no longer be subject to the orders of the military commander when operating in the West Bank, and will directly be serving the political interests of an Israeli minister. The position being offered to Ben-Gvir is no ordinary ministerial position, but rather unprecedented in terms of the power and authority he will hold. It entails an expansion of the authorities of an Israeli government minister over the West Bank, along with a curtailing of the authority of the military commander, and is thus indicative of the entrenchment of annexation.”
When it comes to policing inside the Green Line, Ben-Gvir has repeatedly called to give “backing” to police officers amid allegations of misconduct, and his heavy-handed approach could spark friction with Arab and African communities.
He has not explicitly mentioned deploying the West Bank force inside mixed cities in Israel, even though a precedent has already been set during the intercommunal riots that took place in May 2021.
In any case, Otzma Yehudit’s leader is looking to expand the incipient National Guard, which will mainly be deployed in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, but the success of any such initiative will depend largely on budgets.
From Tel Aviv parking lots to Sheikh Jarrah protests, Itamar Ben-Gvir has been known for brandishing his weapon.
A resident of Kiryat Arba, a religious settlement on the outskirts of Hebron, the far-right lawmaker and his wife hold a gun license – and he plans to expand eligibility.
The present criteria for receiving a firearms license are already relatively lax, and encompass anybody who lives or works in an eligible location (such as West Bank settlements) or has served in an elite combat unit.
Ben-Gvir is expected to significantly loosen restrictions on acquiring weapons, making firearms available to anybody who has completed basic training for the lowest-ranked combat positions.
An existential threat, an existential issue
Israel’s last government established a special division to tackle soaring crime rates in the Arab community, which fell under the authority of the ministry.
Although the division barely chalked up any concrete achievements in its first year, an advisory committee representing the Arab community established a direct line of communication with senior police officials.
In light of Ben-Gvir’s meteoric rise, the community’s leadership is split about partnering with the firebrand politician. On one hand, he has openly incited against Arabs, but on the other, the issue is existential, with 95 already killed this year in the wave of violence engulfing Arab towns.
Despite being tight-lipped on the issue on the campaign trail, Ben-Gvir is expected to release a plan to combat crime in the Arab community within his first 100 days in office.
Persecuting Arabs at the expense of the environment
One of Ben-Gvir’s key campaign pledges was restoring “governance” to the Negev, and the Environmental Protection Ministry’s main enforcement agency, the so-called Green Police, could lend him an unlikely hand.
The authority’s 35 inspectors had previously compiled the evidence to indict Israel’s major polluters, but there are growing fears that the unit will be used to crackdown on unauthorized construction in Bedouin towns, many of which are unrecognized.
Beyond the impact on the 200,000-strong Bedouin community in the Negev, experts believe this will significantly weaken the authority’s deterrence against actual environmental crimes.
Outgoing Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg shares these concerns. “I am afraid that instead of fighting pollution and protecting open spaces, the National Security Ministry will mainly fight against Arabs,” she told Haaretz.
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Ben-Gvir has been vocal on taking a harder line on the conditions of Palestinian security prisons, which he has compared to “summer camps.”
Of 4,655 security prisoners held in Israeli jails, the vast majority of hail from occupied territory and just over half of them have been sentenced, according to HaMoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual.
From the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoner Affairs to several local associations, these “political prisoners” enjoy broad support among Palestinians.
Due to the sensitive situation around the prisoners, even small tweaks to their conditions are liable to cause a conflagration. In September 2021, Israel Prison Service backtracked on a decision to disperse Islamic Jihad prisoners between different jails after the inmates threatened a revolt.
For the time being, Ben-Gvir’s lodestar seems to be the recommendations of the 2018 Katabi Committee.
Commissioned by then-Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Maj. Gen Shlomi Katabi’s report recommended that the Israel Prison Service scraps the spokesperson position for the security prisoners and halts the policy of housing Palestinian prisoners according to their faction.
Jack Khoury, Michael Hauser-Tov and Zafrir Rinat contributed to this report.