As protests and political tensions in Israel reach large-scale proportions, the Israel Police is, once again, back in the limelight, acting as the country’s emergency room. The protests are just the latest challenge to the police’s ability to juggle its multiple and unusual responsibilities—a challenge that must be answered by the formation of an Israeli national guard.
Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are continuing steps begun by the last Israeli government to accomplish this goal. A new national guard headquarters is up and running under the command of a police lieutenant. According to reports, Ben-Gvir has been able to secure an NIS 4.5 billion addition to the National Security Ministry’s annual budget for the next two years. The Israel Police’s annual budget in 2022 was NIS 14.4 billion.
This budget addition can help reverse the trend of police officers quitting their jobs due to poor conditions, but the establishment of a national guard will also be essential to taking some of the pressure off the Israel Police.
Much of that pressure stems from the simple fact that the Israel Police’s current configuration is insufficient to meet the challenges it must take on. The entire police force is made up of some 32,000 civilian police officers and 8,000 Border Police officers. Some 5,000 officers are in headquarters and management positions.
This limited force must fight crime, traffic accidents, illegal narcotics and cyber-crime. It must also deal with public disturbances, act as a counterterrorism force and prepare for all kinds of emergency situations such as earthquakes and mass rocket attacks.
Currently, the Israel Police simply lacks the numbers it needs to do all these things—and the challenges are only growing.
Israel is not a typical state. It has numerous security challenges and social fractures, which means that each police officer must be versatile in order to handle a plethora of missions. This harms the police’s professionalism because it prevents the force from optimizing its abilities in its core functions.
Officers are deployed from one district to another—often from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and back—as events develop, taking on Temple Mount tensions in Jerusalem, then a large parade in Tel Aviv and then mass political rallies. This prevents officers from focusing on specialist areas.
The overall erosion in the organization is significant and the low pay for starting officers—combined with the need to be on constant standby—does not help matters. Add to that the consistently negative public and media portrayal of the police, and you get a force prone to demoralization and resignations.
A case in point is the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod in central Israel, which went up in flames in May 2021 during Israel’s conflict with Hamas. Mass rioting, mostly by Arab-Israeli youths, and hate crimes rocked the city. Lod’s police station has an average of three to four patrol cars available to it at any given time and a maximum of 200 officers. This limited force had to deal with thousands of rioters before backup arrived.
That backup took the form of the Border Police, which is part of the Israeli National Police, a natural home for an Israeli national guard.
Originally established soon after the founding of Israel in 1948 to counter terrorist infiltrations from Arab countries, the Border Police evolved over the years into a semi-military police force with military-type unit categories (battalions and companies).
The Border Police conducts a variety of missions in rural areas, some of which are related to agricultural crime; engages in counterterrorism with special units; and provides continuous security in urban areas.
Currently, when Border Police units enter an area under the jurisdiction of a police district or station, it is activated by the local commander in a coordinated manner. This is the primary reason why a national guard must be part of the Israeli National Police: To prevent the appearance of a third force on Israeli territory that would lack clear territorial command structures. Such a scenario would, in a state about the size of New Jersey, cause chaos.
The Border Police is also well-suited to take on rioting and disturbances, since it is not attached to any police district and is free of daily missions such as investigations, traffic enforcement and combatting drug trafficking.
Once a national guard is up and running, the civilian police will be able to continue conducting its core activities even as emergency scenarios erupt, since it would fall to the guard to mobilize large forces and send them where they are needed quickly.
The future national guard should be made up of thousands of officers, including currently serving Border Police conscripts, professional Border Police officers, reserves and volunteers.
During routine times, the national guard should work daily with the civilian police force, assisting it with missions and maintaining high visibility to reassure Israeli civilians. It should also train and build up its forces. During emergencies—for example, major rioting—the guard will go into action and allow classic police duties to continue uninterrupted.
Ultimately, the opportunity to create a new and critical force has arrived and it is vital to do so without undermining or confusing the police chain of command.
Maj. Gen. Alon Levavi (INP, ret.) is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute. He served for 34 years in the Israeli National Police (INP) and the IDF as a combat pilot. He concluded his service as deputy commissioner in 2019. He is head of the National Resilience Department at Ono Academic College and a researcher at the Institute For National Security Studies (INSS).