Israel advances plan for 2,000-member national guard demanded by far-right minister


(JTA) — The Israeli government approved the creation of a new, 2,000-member national guard demanded by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right minister of national security, in a cabinet vote on Sunday.

The new force won’t begin operating immediately while a government committee spends 90 days evaluating its details — meaning that its future, including whether Ben-Gvir will control it directly as he desires, is not assured. Still, it is getting a budget of roughly $278 million, necessitating a budget cut of 1.5% across all government ministries.

The plan for the new force is eliciting concerns from moderate government ministers and security officials who say Israel does not need a competing force alongside the country’s existing Israeli security services including the Israel Defense Forces, police and Shin Bet intelligence service. One former chief of the Israel Police, Moshe Karadi, warned that Ben-Gvir, who has a track record of provocations, particularly against Palestinians, could use it to “launch a coup.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to establish the national guard last week in order to secure Ben-Gvir’s support for a temporary suspension of the government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

Ben-Gvir issued a statement calling the establishment of the national guard “good news for the residents of the state of Israel.” He added that the force will “act to restore personal security and governance in all parts of Israel.” According to a report in the Times of Israel, the new force will focus on “nationalist crime” and terrorism, particularly in areas where police are stretched thin.

The new force has been criticized as unnecessary, divisive and dangerous by current and former Israel Police commissioners. The current police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, sent a letter to Netanyahu saying that establishing a national guard could lead Israel to pay a “heavy price, including hurting the personal security of civilians.”

“The purpose of the initiative that has been laid before us is completely unclear,” read Shabtai’s letter, according to Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon. “This is a waste of resources, a doubling of staffs, and a gamble whose advantage is unproven. The proposal is likely to cause significant damage to the operational ability of the country’s internal security apparatus, and will hurt the unity of command.”

Netanyahu’s promise to Ben-Gvir influenced this week’s protests against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, which continued despite the overhaul legislation’s pause. In Tel Aviv, protesters dressed as a paramilitary brigade goose-stepped in the streets in a demonstration designed to paint Ben-Gvir’s planned national guard as fascist.