Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir
Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives for the weekly meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Jerusalem: Israel authorised on Sunday setting up a national guard under far-right security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has said it would focus on Arab unrest, while political rivals accused him of setting up a sectarian “militia”.

The previous government had begun moves to set up an auxiliary police force to tackle internal political violence following pro-Palestinian protests in mixed Jewish-Arab areas during the Gaza Strip war of May 2021. That government fell before the force was finalised.

The exact powers of the new national guard will be discussed by a committee comprised of all Israeli security agencies, which will submit recommendations within 90 days, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

It was not immediately clear who would have direct authority over the national guard.

Israel’s police chief, Inspector-General Yaacov Shabtai, has expressed misgivings about the new force in a letter to Ben-Gvir, local media reported.

Ben Gvir, a hardline Jewish settler from the occupied West Bank with past convictions for support for terrorism and incitement against Arabs - who make up 21% of Israel’s population - rose in politics partly due to the 2021 unrest.

Having moderated some of his positions, he wields an expanded law-and-order portfolio in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist governing coalition.

Ben Gvir has described the planned national guard in media interviews as an update of the previous government’s initiative.

Discussing its planned deployments, he named only Arab communities hit by riots or crime, in Israel as well as along the boundaries with the Palestinian West Bank.

“It will deal with this exclusively. The police does not deal exclusively with this. It’s busy with a thousand and one things,” he told Army Radio.

Arab politicians have denounced the national guard as a “militia” for Ben-Gvir. Other opposition figures have accused Ben-Gvir of wanting a new force to crack down on nationwide demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul plan.

“Why does the State of Israel - which has an army, police, military intelligence, the Shin Bet, Mossad, National Security Council, Prisons Service, riot police, a SWAT team - need another national guard?” Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh wrote on Twitter.

Government funding will enable an initial intake of 1,850 personnel for the new force, Ben-Gvir said, adding that these could be seconded police officers and volunteers, including from the Arab sector.

He said that the national guard would take months to get off the ground and that he was trying to fill police posts in parallel.

Israeli police chief Shabtai questioned the need for the national guard and warned that any separation of it from the police hierachy “could prove most costly and even harm the security of the citizenry,” according to the Ynet news site.

Confirming the existence of the letter, Ben-Gvir said he would meet Shabtai on Monday and was open to the possibility of putting the national guard under the command authority of the police “if they’re serious and really want it”.