Democracy defenders on Monday sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's agreement to place the country's National Guard under the control of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right extremist who has advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Netanyahu's move is in exchange for a promise from Ben-Gvir's Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party to remain in the prime minister's governing coalition despite an earlier threat to exit if Netanyahu delayed a highly controversial judicial overhaul. Facing massive street protests and a general strike by the nation's largest trade union, Netanyahu agreed on Monday to postpone the legislation until April or early May.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets Sunday to protest Netanyahu's firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who a day earlier advocated for a monthlong pause to the judicial reform.
"Instead of democracy, Israel doubles down on fascism against Palestinians."
Netanyahu explained in a televised address Monday that he is "not willing to tear the country apart," while asserting that "there must not be civil war."
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) said in response to Netanyahu's deal with his security minister: "We already saw what happened when Ben-Gvir wanted to suppress the protests, now one can only imagine what will happen when he has his own militias."
It is important to understand—the "National Guard" that Netanyahu promised is a private armed militia that will answer directly to Ben-Gvir. This is a police unit intended first and foremost to act in mixed cities, first and foremost against the Arab population. Such power in Ben-Gvir's hands = certain violation of Arabs' rights. Advancing such a proposal will also enable him to use these forces against the protests and demonstrators.
This is a new and dangerous addition to the coup d'état that we are witnessing. As if it is not enough to act against the judicial system, now we see operative steps to take authorities from the police and turn them into Ben-Gvir's Revolutionary Guards.
"The National Guard must be under the police rather than under the control of Lehava and the rest of the Kahanists," asserted Gilad Kariv, a member of Israel's parliament representing the center-left Israeli Labor Party, as he referenced the far-right Jewish supremacist political group and followers of Meir Kahane, the Orthodox rabbi convicted of terrorism before being assassinated in 1990.
For progressive critics, the idea of Ben-Gvir having a military unit under his direct control presents a frightening prospect.
Ben-Gvir was convicted in 2007 of incitement to racism and supporting the Kahanist terror group Kach after he advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. He is also an open admirer of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish supremacist who murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers at a mosque in the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.
Moshe Karadi, former general commissioner of the Israel Police, told the Times of Israel that Ben-Gvir "has formed a private militia for his political needs."
"He's dismantling Israeli democracy" and "turning Israel into a dictatorship," Karadi added.
Currently a unit within the Israel Border Police, the National Guard was established under the previous Israeli government amid rising Palestinian resistance and in the wake of the 2021 military assault on Gaza.