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MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at a committee meeting in the Knesset, Dec. 14, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at a committee meeting in the Knesset, Dec. 14, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Who will control Israel’s new National Guard?

The police doesn't want an independent force to be created.

Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai on Tuesday continued his attacks against the proposal to create an independent National Guard, after meeting the previous evening with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

“Let it be clear I support the establishment of a National Guard but oppose the establishment of a security force that will operate parallel to the police,” Shabtai said. “The National Guard must be part of the Israel Police, operate within the policy framework, and be subordinate to the commanders of the regional forces according to the chain of command.”

He spoke after the Cabinet on Sunday approved the establishment of a National Guard under the National Security Ministry.

A small Israeli National Guard was already established in June 2022 under the previous government of then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The violence between Muslim and Jewish Israelis that erupted in Israeli cities during the May 2021 war (“Operation Guardian of the Walls”) with Hamas in the Gaza Strip demonstrated the “urgent need” to strengthen citizens’ security.

“Time and time again, we see the difference between incidents in which a responsibly armed civilian was in the area and those in which one was not. The need is great, especially in ultra-Orthodox cities where fewer people carry weapons,” Bennett said.

Omer Dostri, a specialist in strategy and Israeli national security at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and at the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF), told JNS, “The events during ‘Guardian of the Walls’ highlighted the need for a dedicated security force capable of handling domestic violence and terror, particularly in the face of riots and attacks by Israeli Arabs against Jews in mixed Israeli cities.”

When the National Guard was established last year it was made a part of the Israel Police under the command of Border Police Commissioner Maj. Gen. Amir Cohen. The Guard currently consists of a few hundred personnel.

The decision to establish a new National Guard under the National Security Ministry has been controversial, with some fearing that it may be used to crack down on political opponents.

Unclear mission

“I don’t think there is any need to establish a force independent of the Border Police in order to strengthen national security. The money would be much better used being given to a pre-existing security structure,” Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategy and Security (INSS) and a former deputy national security adviser, told JNS.

“This decision is not being informed by a concern for national security but rather a concern for coalition politics by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and that is not justified,” Freilich added.

He is concerned that this force will be misused.

“It is unclear that this force will be reasonably constrained by law; the mission is completely unclear. I think demonstrators and people who have been out protesting against the government should be concerned,” Freilich said.

Opposition leaders echo these sentiments, with Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid calling the proposal “ridiculous and despicable.”

Others view the Cabinet decision as a justified measure designed to establish the rule of law in areas where it does not exist and dismiss the critiques of the opposition.

“These objections are mainly political and characterized by intimidation and populism. Should the Israel Prison Service and the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority be considered militias simply because they do not operate under the authority of the police? These organizations fall under the Ministry of National Security, which is appropriate and necessary,” Dostri told JNS.

He added that there is a great need for a new national guard.

“The current reality is that the police force is not capable and not authorized to handle situations such as domestic terrorism, natural disasters and large-scale uprisings or riots. Moreover, Israeli citizens do not feel secure within their own country. There are areas in the North, South and even the central region where the Israeli government’s governance is waning,” Dostri said.

The establishment of a new, more powerful and independent National Guard was a major campaign promise of Ben-Gvir and was agreed upon during the coalition negotiations between Netanyahu’s Likud and Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit parties following the Nov. 1 election.

As the judicial reform bills were being advanced through the Knesset over the past few months, the issue of the National Guard moved to the background until last week. Then Netanyahu froze the judicial overhaul due to the mass protests across Israel.

Ben-Gvir voiced disapproval of the prime minister’s decision and even threatened to topple the coalition until Netanyahu signed a pledge to move the issue of establishing a new National Guard under the National Security Ministry to vote at the next Cabinet meeting.

The proposal approved by the Cabinet on Sunday would establish a 2,000-strong force with an annual budget of 1 billion shekels ($280 million). However, the details of the timeline and the mission statement of the Guard are currently undefined.

Combat crime

Ben-Gvir said it will be used to combat crime with a focus that taking place within the Arab-Israeli community and protection rackets “in areas with criminal organizations and mixed cities,” the latter referring to cities with large numbers of both Arab and Jewish residents such as Lod and Ramle, which saw the highest level of disturbances during “Guardians of the Walls.”

The proposal came with a 1.5% budget cut for all ministries to cover the new expenses.

Several ministers expressed reservations about the Guard both due to the expense and to the unclear mission of the force, but still voted in favor of the proposal. “You want everything fast and it comes at our expense,” Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel of Likud said.

Under Sunday’s Cabinet decision, a committee made up of representatives of the Defense Ministry, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), the Israel Police, the IDF and the National Security Council will convene for the next 90 days, tasked with defining the jurisdiction and the chain of command under which the National Guard will operate.

At the conclusion of the 90-day period, the committee’s proposals will be passed on to Ben-Gvir, who will selectively approve them, and then bring the filtered proposals to a final Cabinet vote.

Several names have been floated to head the new National Guard, including recently retired Col. (res.) Avinoam Emunah, Brig. Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch and former Israel Police Deputy Commissioner Uri Bar-Lev.

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