Netanyahu’s neo-fascist Cabinet colleagues took a look at Tehran’s paramilitary armies around the region, and decided they wanted one too. After hundreds of thousands of Israelis temporarily thwarted Netanyahu’s plot to eviscerate the judiciary, he now seeks to placate his extremist allies by giving his security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, his own 2,000-strong private army.
Ben-Gvir says his “national guard” militia approved by the government on Sunday will “restore governance” in mixed Jewish-Arab cities. Given his championing of pogroms by armed settlers against Palestinian villages, little imagination is required to realize how such an unaccountable militia will be deployed against Arab-Israeli communities. Israel’s Association for Civil Rights warned that “establishing an armed force subject to the national security minister and separate from the police” would be “illegitimate” and a dangerously problem for law enforcement. This extremist regime has already displayed a permissive attitude toward the indiscriminate use of force: About 100 Palestinians have been killed since Netanyahu’s return to power in December, settlers carried out 8,724 documented attacks against Palestinians and their property last year, and attacks on Christians and other minorities have also increased.
Ben-Gvir perfectly fits the job description for militia warlord. He is a convicted criminal with more than 50 indictments against him, including charges of violence and incitement to racism, and he has a record of support for terrorist groups. Ben-Gvir last week co-organized a demonstration that rampaged through Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs” and staged the attempted lynching of a Palestinian taxi driver. Right-wing supporters were brought into Tel Aviv by bus.
Many of these elements, masked and dressed in black, attacked pro-democracy demonstrators. The attackers included groups associated with vigilante violence, such as La Familia, with whom Ben-Gvir is personally involved. Israeli commentators explicitly compared Ben-Gvir’s ambitions to how former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki established his own private militias, which later mutated into Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi – culpable in massacres, sectarian cleansing and seeking to militarily dominate Iraq. In a close parallel to Hashd commander Hadi Al-Amiri, who simultaneously dominates Interior Ministry forces, Ben-Gvir already controls Israel’s border police force, which is responsible for law enforcement in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. Like Amiri, Ben-Gvir has been agitating for a more violent approach to protests. With paramilitary forces under his control, he can do exactly that.
Paramilitary forces and self-defense militias fuel dangerous escalatory dynamics, brutalize society and provoke retaliatory vigilante violence. Amid escalating tensions in Lebanon, some Christian factions are considering arming themselves in response to the perceived threat from Hezbollah, and the disturbing ambition of “cleansing” Lebanon of Syrian refugees. With a soaring death rate from Israeli military crackdowns, young Palestinians and Arab-Israelis are flocking to join armed factions in a manner unseen for a generation – offering further pretexts to fascists such as Ben-Gvir for more aggressive militarization.
These developments are part of a remorseless long-term trend: the expansion of extreme-right ultra-Orthodox communities compared with centrist secular Israelis. Over 60 percent of Israeli Jews identify as right wing, and only 11 percent as left wing. There are 720,000 Israelis living in illegal settlements, with plans approved for 22,000 new settlement homes. Thus, the proportion of Israeli Jews who see their existence as inseparably tied to the occupation continues to grow. Relentless settlement expansion is aided and abetted by decades of Western inaction and condonement. Feeble statements are a convenient way to avoid applying actual pressure on Israel.
When Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich argues that Palestinians don’t exist, that Palestinian towns should be “wiped out”, and that parts of Jordan and Syria belong to Israel, he is articulating the views of an inexorably expanding demographic. Centrist Israelis who sought to block Netanyahu’s judicial “reforms” are fighting a rearguard action from a cosmopolitan worldview that is increasingly anachronistic. Ultra-Orthodox ideologues don’t even recognize secular Israelis as legitimate citizens. Consequently, highly educated, professional, wealth-creating segments of society who have not already left the country will be remorselessly marginalized from the political sphere. Western politicians will now struggle to maintain the fiction that “Israel is the Middle East’s only true democracy.” US Jews have so far supplied Israel’s international bedrock of support and finance, but many American Jews are thoroughly repulsed by Netanyahu’s extremism. Last week, Netanyahu’s blunt retort to Biden’s rare public rebuke was striking: “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad.”
It is remarkable that Netanyahu and Biden have allowed relations to deteriorate so far when Iran is 10 minutes from nuclear midnight. Fulfilling their commitments to prevent Tehran becoming a military nuclear power will require close coordination. Netanyahu’s detestable policies have furthermore blown a Palestine-sized hole in his efforts to cultivate Arab allies. Israel will always find uncritical cheerleaders among powerful Western right-wing lobbies, whatever its excesses. However, global publics will harbor little sympathy for a nakedly authoritarian apartheid regime that steals land, while suppressing Palestinian populations and stripping non-Orthodox communities of their democratic rights.
Israel is self-consciously trending toward the authoritarian pariah camp. Netanyahu’s officials visited Poland and Hungary to compare notes on subverting judicial independence. But given the messianically theocratic tenor and expansionist commitments of the current regime, especially Ben-Gvir’s penchant for cultivating sectarian militias, perhaps the closest model is Tehran’s ayatollahs. Everybody expects Netanyahu’s judicial “reform” legislation to ultimately be forced through, even if there is a temporary lull in tensions in the meantime. His Zionist allies want to prevent judicial protection of Palestinian land rights, Orthodox factions want to obstruct judicial support for military conscription for yeshiva students, and Netanyahu wants to avoid prison.
Tensions are already at detonation point in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Hassan Nasrallah has been noisily agitating for war, while Israel has stepped up attacks on Hezbollah-aligned militias in Syria. The creation of Jewish-extremist paramilitary factions is an inauspicious development in a region already overflowing with such forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Such proliferation of unaccountable militias with mutually hostile agendas, backed by ultranationalists, radical regimes, and terrorist sponsors, is a recipe for engulfing the region in terminal chaos. Netanyahu has been a blight on regional politics since his tireless 1990s efforts to kill off the Oslo process. He is a self-serving extremist. But real power is in the hands of figures such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, who take deranged extremism to whole new levels – seeing radical armed settlers and mafiosi militias as their route to consolidating power, expanding territory, and crushing their enemies. We should be fearful for the future.