Itamar Ben-Gvir: Israel's Minister of Insecurity
If another intifada breaks out, he'll be partly to blame because he is dividing Israel and inciting Palestinians
Shutterstock. Avivi Aharon
Israel is always a tense country. But it has been a tinderbox since November when Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu cobbled together 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset, including six from the far-right Otzma Yehudit (the Jewish Power Party), to form a coalition government and return to power. Mass protests have been rocking the country for weeks, especially over Bibi’s proposal to emasculate the Israeli judiciary and remove a crucial check on executive power, as The UnPopulist has covered.
But things reached a whole new level last week when Netanyahu fired his own defense minister, Yoav Gallant, for joining all those in the military opposing his judicial overhaul. Businesses went on strike. Hospitals cut back their services. Unions threatened a work stoppage. Airports halted outgoing flights. So intense was the pushback that the prime minister was finally forced to put his plans on hold and promise negotiations with the opposition to work out a compromise.
But calm did not last for even a few days. Last week, the Israeli police twice raided the Al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, the third holiest site for Muslims, and tried to evacuate Palestinians praying during the holy month of Ramadan. The worshippers barricaded themselves inside the mosque. The police, under the command of Netanyahu’s extremist national security minister, Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets. Many people were injured and about 350 were arrested. Palestinian militants in Gaza on Israel’s west responded with rocket fire. Israel replied with airstrikes first at them, then militants in West Bank to its east, where it killed two women, and finally Lebanon to its north.* In short, Israel is now embroiled in hostilities on three sides.
This is not the first time that Israel and Palestinians have come to blows during Ramadan at the Al Aqsa mosque, which Jews call the Temple Mount because it is situated in the central ruins of the Second Temple of ancient Israel, the holiest site in Judaism. However, this time there was a sense of foreboding going into Ramadan, which coincides partly with the Jewish Passover. And one big reason is that the 46-year-old Ben-Gvir, an extremist member of an extreme party, is now heading the country’s national security.
As soon as he was appointed to the cabinet, he inflamed tensions by publicly going to Al Aqsa/Temple Mount, signaling a possible alteration of the 50-year-old peace agreement under which Jews can visit but not pray there. The United States, along with much of the international community, roundly criticized Ben-Gvir’s actions as provocative.
But the latest kindling was provided by the government’s decision to resume evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to make room for Jewish settlers who have been embroiled in a long legal battle trying to acquire property there. (East Jerusalem has been under Israeli control ever since Israel captured it in the 1967 Six-Day War. But Palestinians have never given up their claim to the area and, under international law, Israel is supposed to refrain from settlement activity till the two sides negotiate an agreement. East Jerusalem is also regarded by many as the capital of any future Palestinian state.)
But as Bibi himself called for calm after this week’s clashes, Ben-Gvir tweeted, “It's time to rip heads off in Gaza." (Yet, ironically, it is Yoav Gallant’s fate that hangs in the balance in Netanyahu’s cabinet, not Ben-Gvir’s.)
When Ben-Gvir was appointed as head of national security, not only Netanyahu’s political opponents protested —but also his supporters.
Assaf Sagiv, one of Israel’s leading conservative thinkers and a veteran of the conservative Shalem Center recently expressed dismay that Bibi had reached into the “lunatic fringe” to make his appointment. Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s defense minister during a previous term, too denounced the appointment, calling Ben-Gvir a “pyromaniac” who’ll set the region aflame. Indeed, until now Netanyahu himself wouldn’t have his picture taken with Ben-Gvir or share a stage with him.
So who exactly is Itamar Ben-Gvir and what is so terrible about him?
Appointing an ultra-nationalist, agent provocateur like Ben-Gvir the minister of national security is like appointing a racist like George Wallace the minister of race relations.
Ben-Gvir’s political consciousness was formed during the first Palestinian intifada in the early 1990s. In his teens, he joined the youth movement affiliated with Moledet, a right-wing political party that advocated “transferring” Israeli Arabs out of the country. “But that turned out to be tame for him,” observed a Haaretz writer in 2016. So he defected to Kach, an overtly racist, far-right political party founded by the American-born, extreme nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who called Arabs “dogs”, advocated apartheid or expulsion for non-Jews in Israel, and sought to establish a theocratic Jewish state. The party was eventually outlawed and its supporters had been pushed to the margins of Israeli society.
But it wasn’t just Arabs and Palestinians whom Ben-Gvir hates, he also despises Israeli liberals who entertain Palestinian aspirations for statehood. A few weeks before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords with Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yaseer Arafat as a prelude to the now defunct two-state solution, Ben-Gvir appeared on television brandishing a Cadillac emblem stolen from the prime minister’s car and threatened: “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too.”
Nor was this just some youthful indiscretion, as it turns out. Over the years, Ben-Gvir, a lawyer himself, has been arrested hundreds of times, indicted 53 times and convicted seven times, including on charges of incitement to racism against Arabs, interfering with a police officer from performing his duty, and his support for Kach, which had been branded a terrorist organization by the State Department until recently.
His run-ins with the legal system have generated one change: He has become far savvier in skirting the law. For example, when his extremist followers chant, “Death to Arabs,” Ben-Gvir counsels , “You should say ‘Death to the terrorists.’ That’s legal with a stamp.” He did, however, distance himself from a guest at a wedding who took a knife to the photo of an 18-month-old Palestinian toddler burned alive, along with his parents, by Jewish extremists who torched their home in 2015.
When he’s not himself running afoul of the legal system, Ben-Gvir is defending extremist Jewish settlers who are. He is deeply committed to the settlement cause to boost Jewish presence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank so that it becomes difficult—if not impossible—for Israel to return these areas to the Palestinians to form their own, separate state. He himself has relocated to Hebron in the West Bank, into what the international community considers an illegal settlement.
Ben Gvir has been called the “go-to” man for settlers and far-right extremists in trouble with the law. His clients include Lehava, the anti-assimilationist, Jewish supremacist group that opposes romantic or business relationships between Jews and Gentiles and LGBT rights in Israel, and Amiram Ben-Uliel, the perpetrator of a firebombing in the Palestinian village of Duma. Adding fuel to the fire, Ben-Gvir not only defends his fellow settlers in court after they’ve violated the law—but also openly eggs them on in their violent crusade. In February, barely a month into his job, Jewish settlers in an illegal outpost in West Bank’s Evyatar went on a deadly shooting riot ahead of their eviction. They threw stones at authorities trying to evict them. What did Ben-Gvir do? Deliver a fiery speech: "Our enemies need to hear a message of settlement, but also one of crushing them one by one," he fumed. "This is not a war that began yesterday, not a war that's going to end in one day, but it's a war for our home, for our lives," he said.
Likewise, after Israeli settlers in the Palestinian town of Huwara in February went on a deadly rampage in retaliation for a shooting by a Palestinian, setting houses and cars on fire for more than five hours, he didn’t denounce their actions, he reassured them. "I understand the hard feelings, but this is not the way, we don't take the law into our hands,” he said. “The government of Israel, the State of Israel, the IDF, the security forces—they are the ones who have to crush our enemies."
To many, this statement signaled an ominous turn by the new government. In February, Washington Post’s foreign reporter Shira Rubin noted that there was a growing fear among Israelis and Palestinians alike that the country was careening toward another intifada, this time even more violent given that there are more guns and more militant groups not just in Palestinian-controlled Gaza but also the West Bank where Netanyahu has already announced a rapid expansion of settlements.
Appointing an ultra-nationalist, agent provocateur like Ben-Gvir the minister of national security is like appointing a racist like George Wallace the minister of race relations. That the security situation in Israel is rapidly deteriorating is scary—but hardly surprising given who’s at its helm.
*This sentence has been amended for accuracy
It's confusing, I know, that the West Bank is to Israel's East. :) But you got your East & West confused WRT Gaza and the WB, didn't you?