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From Ben-Gvir’s Paramilitaries to IDF ‘Policing’ | Israel’s Alarming Security Plans Could Inflame Relations With Its Arab Citizens

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Plans to set up an Israeli national guard, which have been advancing desultorily for almost two years, got a push in recent days from an unexpected source. The political trap in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is caught compelled him to promise National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir that the guard would be formed and answer directly to the minister, and even to allocate funding and staff positions for it.

The cabinet approved the decision on Sunday and set up a committee to formulate the national guard’s powers and chain of command. It did so over the fierce objections of the police commissioner, attorney general, head of the Shin Bet and every other professional whose opinion was sought.

Given the current government’s chaotic management, it’s hard to see Netanyahu’s promise as evidence that the plan will actually be carried out. But the way Ben-Gvir and other right-wing ministers talk about the national guard, it’s clear that they intend to use it not as a regular policing agency, but as a paramilitary organization that would operate inside Israel in times of crisis, mainly to deal with rioting and nationalist incidents involving Israeli Arabs.

In recent months, the police and Israel Defense Forces have held several joint meetings on the division of labor between them should there be a reprise of what happened in May 2021 – an escalation with the Palestinians (in that case, with Hamas in the Gaza Strip) that leads to interethnic clashes in mixed Arab-Jewish cities and attempts to block major roads used by the army to move troops and equipment.

They recently formulated a plan under which reservists from the army’s Home Front Command would deploy to ensure that dozens of roads passing near Arab towns remain open. The police, and eventually the national guard, would ostensibly maintain security within Arab communities and in mixed cities.

But senior officers in both the army and the police voiced fears that army reservists would be “sucked in” and find themselves clashing with Arab citizens inside Israel.

Yesh Atid MK Yoav Segalovitz, a former deputy public security minister and former police major general, said he plans to ask the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to discuss this issue after the Knesset’s spring recess.

“Inserting the IDF into a mission like this requires extensive, thorough consideration, because it entails significant strategic risks,” he said. “Soldiers shouldn’t face off with Israeli citizens.”

Segalovitz fears that Israeli Arabs will see the plan as “a militarization of their relationship with the state.” And he warned that if soldiers used live fire against Israeli Arabs during riots inside Israel, it would be an extremely grave turning point in the state’s relations with the Arab community.

“A military presence in Arab communities and on main roads within the Green Line could endanger relations between Jews and Arabs and embroil the army in an incident with political ramifications,” he added, referring to the line that separates Israel from the West Bank.

The reason given for transferring responsibility for securing roads to the army is that the police lack the manpower to do the job, and the army may well be better suited to it. The idea is to deploy light infantry from the Home Front reserves in jeeps. They would carry guns as well as crowd-dispersal equipment.

The plan calls for deploying 16 battalions in large parts of the Negev and along major roads in the north (though not the Wadi Ara Road). The forces would also protect strategic infrastructure facilities. About half the battalions have already been formed and given initial training.

Officials involved in the discussions also raised the possibility that these reserve battalions might be deployed in mixed cities and in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, though this isn’t officially part of the plan. The battalions are supposed to be attached to Border Police companies, and the latter will lead the army reservists.

Ever since the current government was formed, there has been growing pressure from ministers to advance plans for an emergency IDF deployment in Arab communities, especially in the Negev, given rightist claims about the lack of governance down south.

A senior IDF officer said the May 2021 riots inside Israel led the army to conclude that securing major roads was essential and that the police would have trouble doing so because it had so many other responsibilities. He added that in the military prosecution’s opinion, deploying troops inside Israel is permissible in an emergency.

The plan does not call for deploying soldiers in mixed cities, he said. But he admitted that in extreme cases, where the police are having trouble functioning, this could be possible.

But another security source who was involved in the joint meetings but opposed the plan harshly, criticized the proposals discussed in those meetings. He said the scenarios on which they are based “mark a strategic turning point in attitudes toward Arab citizens’ loyalty to the state in situations of conflict or war, to the point of defining them as a potential fifth column. This entails many risks and dictates a reversal, from A to Z, in attitudes toward the country’s Arab citizens.”

This source mentioned two historic events in which great harm was done to Israeli Arabs – the 1956 massacre of 48 Arab residents in Kafr Qasem by members of the Border Police (who were subordinate to the IDF), and the Arab riots of October 2000, in which police killed 13 Arab Israelis. He noted that intelligence assessments about the scope of rioting expected during future escalations and the number of potential participants are fairly modest, yet despite this, fears were voiced in the meetings about the police’s ability to contain such incidents on their own.

The Shin Bet’s traditional view has been that security control doesn’t require a comprehensive policy toward Israeli Arabs, but only tools for dealing on an individual basis with the small percentage who engage in subversive terrorist activity. Even today, the Shin Bet’s view, as expressed in the meetings, is that the dangerous group – the one with a potential for nationalist violence – exists only on the fringes of Israeli Arab society and numbers at most 5,000 people, most of them young.

Moreover, the Home Front Command and the emergency services have gradually developed tighter cooperation with Arab municipalities, starting in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 and continuing to improve over the course of five rounds of fighting in Gaza from 2008 to 2022. This cooperation got another boost during the coronavirus crisis, when Home Front Command soldiers were generally welcomed when they came to provide help to Arab towns and neighborhoods.

For years, the command refrained from training to deal with Arab riots or road-blocking, in part due to the sensitivities of Arab mayors. Two years ago, this training resumed, sparking criticism from the mayors.

The plan arouses concern that the mission imposed on the IDF isn’t tailored to the reservists’ capabilities. Dealing with violent riots is primarily a policing job, and the people responsible for it are the Border Police and the police’s riot police unit.

Even in the West Bank, the IDF has frequently failed to cope with violent demonstrations or responded with excessive force. And the difficulties would likely increase in a confrontation with Israeli citizens. In that case, reservists with limited training would have to use crowd-control equipment against Israelis.

Existing legal instructions for using soldiers against a civilian population, and especially within Israel, forbid the use of live fire except in life-threatening situations. But absent sufficient training and preparation, the road to using live fire against civilians seems short. That could accelerate an all-out conflict within Israel.

An increased military presence on major roads near Arab communities could also send Arabs the message that they have become potential enemies and thereby spur localized clashes. And this plan is being introduced at a time when the Arab community has grown more accustomed to a beefed-up police presence and doesn’t necessarily see it as a clear step toward escalation.

Some security officials involved in the matter said that despite the proliferation of illegal guns in the Arab community, the feelings of a loss of governance in the south and the fears of violent clashes between Jews and Arabs, preparations to address this must continue being based on police and Border Police forces. Their fear is that using unskilled soldiers could result in many casualties and destroy the state’s relationship with the Arab community for many years to come.

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Article source: Haaretz | Amos Harel | Apr 3, 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000