Jerusalem24 – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in keeping his coalition secure on Monday night when far-right extremist and Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir announced he would agree to a delay in the government’s judicial overhaul plans in exchange for the formation of a civilian militia under his control.
Ben-Gvir had initially threatened to pull out of the coalition if the judicial overhaul freeze went ahead, which would have triggered the collapse of Netanyahu’s administration and the probable end of the four-time premier’s political career.
Ben-Gvir said in a statement: “I agreed to remove my veto on the postponement of the legislation in exchange for a commitment that the bills be brought to the Knesset for approval in the next session if no agreements are reached during the recess.”
Officially, the vote on the judicial overhaul has been postponed until 30 April after the Knesset’s Passover recess.
However, hours before Netanyahu’s announced freeze on the legislation, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chaired by Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman – a fervent supporter of the overhaul– convened and voted 8-7 to approve for second and third readings one of the overhaul’s key pieces of legislation.
According to Haaretz, the bill is now “sitting on the Knesset table, ready for a final vote at any moment.”
Police powers to promote political interests
Ben-Gvir boasted of the establishment of the “national guard” and that the budget he requested for the Ministry of National Security “will be passed in its entirety” in a Tweet on Monday evening.
הרפורמה תעבור. המשמר הלאומי יוקם. התקציב שדרשתי למשרד לביטחון לאומי יעבור במלואו.
אף אחד לא יפחיד אותנו. אף
אחד לא יצליח לשנות את הכרעת העם.
חזרו אחרי: ד-מו-קר-טיה!
— איתמר בן גביר (@itamarbengvir) March 27, 2023
The formation of the national guard is set to be approved in the next Cabinet meeting this upcoming Sunday.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) immediately expressed concern that the national guard would serve as “a private, armed militia that will be directly subordinate to Ben-Gvir.”
The organization had already accused Netanyahu’s administration of attempting “to destroy […] all the checks and balances within Israel’s system of power” and petitioned in January the High Court of Justice to cancel an amendment to the Police Arrangements introduced by Ben-Gvir, which ACRI said would “make Israel Police into a political police that uses its powers to promote the interests of the minister – similar to dictatorial regimes.”
Omar Barlev, the outgoing Minister of Public Security (the former name of the ministry now under Ben-Gvir’s tenure) also criticized the amendments – which passed in the Knesset one day ahead of Netanyahu’s swearing-in on 29 December and state that the government has “authority” over the police – as “too broad”, with “an opening for interpretation and over-expansion.”
Ben-Gvir retorted at the time that he was “not trying to create a private army”.
Privileging Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians
Calls the formation of a civilian militia were actually put forward by Israel’s previous administration, with former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett proposing such a scheme in the immediate aftermath of May 2021’s “Unity Intifada” and revealing the plans a year later.
In a joint speech in June 2022, Bennett and Barlev announced they expected “tens of thousands of Israelis” to join the security forces as part of the planned “civilian national guard”, and that 40 million shekel had been earmarked for the program.
Israel’s Kan public broadcaster revealed earlier this month that a unit comprising dozens of civilian veterans was to serve as “a special alert squad” in the mixed Palestinian-Jewish city of Lydd, in what appears to be a first iteration of the proposed militia.
Lydd was the site of protests and violence during May 2021, when Palestinians with Israeli citizenship rose across Israel in response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza.
Israeli law enforcement agencies were accused by Human Rights Watch of using excessive force to disperse protests by Palestinians in Lydd during the unrest, while reacting half-heartedly and unevenly to violence against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship committed by Jewish ultra-nationalists.
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, commented at the time that the Israeli police’s discriminatory response “underscores the reality that the Israeli state apparatus privileges Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians, wherever they live and irrespective of their legal status.”