JERUSALEM — The Israeli government agreed in principle on Sunday to establish a national guard, handing a political victory to the far-right minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who had long demanded the militia as a condition for supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The form and leadership of the national guard were yet to be determined and will take months to be fleshed out by a committee of government officials, who will then present their proposal for the cabinet’s approval.
Regardless of the form the guard ultimately takes, the government’s decision on Sunday reflected the influence that figures like Mr. Ben-Gvir, a once-marginal activist, wield within the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It also amplified questions, dismissed by Mr. Netanyahu, about the control he exerts over his government.
Mr. Ben-Gvir had demanded that the government move forward with the national guard as a quid pro quo for supporting Mr. Netanyahu’s decision last week to suspend a judicial overhaul which set off months of protest.
Supporters of a national guard say the institution would improve the state’s response to internal disorder during times of unrest such as the riots that swept across Israel in May 2021. Mr. Ben-Gvir has said that the existing police force lacks the capacity to curb widespread rioting and that a new guard would include full-time troops as well as volunteers who could be called up at short notice.
Critics fear that the national guard would be used to target Israel’s Arab minority, which forms roughly a fifth of Israel’s population of nine million, as well as Jewish protesters and dissidents. If Mr. Ben-Gvir is put in direct charge of the guard, opponents worry that he might use it as a personal militia, a suggestion he denies.
As a teenager, Mr. Ben-Gvir was barred from military service for his extreme views, and he later accrued several criminal charges. He has been convicted of inciting racism and of supporting a terrorist organization whose leader sought to strip Arabs of their Israeli citizenship and pushed for segregation of Israeli public spaces. Until 2020, Mr. Ben-Gvir hung a portrait in his living room of a Jewish man who shot dead 29 Palestinians in the West Bank in 1994.
Mr. Ben-Gvir, who says he has moderated his views in recent years, said Sunday in a statement that the creation of a national guard answered a “basic essential need for the State of Israel.”
He added, “There is a broad consensus that the guard will work to restore personal security and governance in all parts of Israel.”
But rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel express widespread concern that the national guard could endanger Arabs’ safety.
They cite Mr. Ben-Gvir’s own statements about the project, in which he has said that the force would be used in contexts that typically involve Israel’s Arab minority. He has repeatedly suggested deploying the national guard in situations like the May 2021 strife, which occurred in areas with large Arab populations.
He has also suggested using the guard to combat theft from Israeli farms and to raze homes built without government authorization.
Home demolitions typically target Arabs who lack permission for construction in Jerusalem and the Negev desert, while police data suggests a disproportionately high number of Arabs are arrested over accusations of farm theft.
“It doesn’t take much to realize what his goal with this militia is,” said Gadeer Nicola, head of the Arab department at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an independent rights watchdog.
“It will target Arab residents,” Ms. Nicola said.
There is also opposition to the plan within the security services and among moderate government ministers, who issued anonymous briefings to the Israeli news media that criticized the proposal for redirecting millions of dollars from other ministries.
Yaakov Shabtai, the inspector general of the Israeli police, wrote in a recent letter to Mr. Ben-Gvir that if the guard is placed outside of police control, it will muddy the chain of command and create operational ambiguity.
“The benefit of separating it from the police is not clear and may even create serious operational failures,” Inspector General Shabtai wrote. “Even the division of responsibility between the bodies will not be clear either,” he added.
But some former police leaders support the premise of an independent national guard because its autonomy could allow it to focus on longer-term operations.
Uri Bar-Lev, a former deputy police commissioner, was an early proponent of the concept and said it was necessary to remedy a long-running reluctance within the police force to crack down on Arab crime syndicates.
Several years ago, an Israeli police campaign successfully curbed the influence of several Jewish organized crime groups. But officials acknowledge avoiding a similar effort in Arab communities, where gang-related murders are disproportionately higher than in Jewish areas.
An autonomous national guard could help rectify that gap, Mr. Bar-Lev said.
Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.
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