A former commander in Israel’s elite Golani Brigade has told The National it is essential that his country forms a national guard, a divisive project led by Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Mr Ben-Gvir has stirred controversy on a number of issues, taking a hard line in favour of settlement expansion in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Professor Gabi Siboni says that Israel is “late in creating” such a force, and that it would be crucial during “conflicts with Israel’s enemies, in which the country could face extreme internal conditions”.
Despite fears among some in Israel’s security establishment that a national guard could become a “militia”, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March promised Mr Ben-Gvir that plans for the force would be brought before cabinet for approval.
The plans were given the go-ahead in early April despite warnings from Israeli police chief Kobi Shabtai that a national guard subordinate to Mr Ben-Gvir “could cause serious harm to the safety and security of Israeli citizens”.
But Prof Siboni believes history shows that such a force would make Israel safer.
“We had Arab riots in Israel during (military operation) Guardians of the Walls. We need these new forces to maintain order and ensure the safety of the Jewish people and also Arabs, who suffer from riots,” Prof Siboni said.
Guardian of the Walls was a 2021 Israeli military operation launched after terror group Hamas launched missiles into Israel from its enclave, the Gaza Strip.
“In an actual full-scale conflict, the situation seen in 2021 could be magnified 100 times. The police force in its current form would be unable to provide any such security. It is too small and already has many other missions to fulfil,” Prof Siboni said.
“We need a strong organisation based on reserves that would provide security in mixed cities, to allow our military to concentrate its forces on the borders,” he added.
Some policing experts disagree.
Merav Lapidot, a former chief spokeswoman for Israel’s police, told The National that a national guard would divert vital funds away from an overstretched police force.
“The police currently lacks 2,000 officers and needs more money, not a new national guard with expensive new headquarters,” Ms Lapidot said.
Private militia fear
“Creating a national guard without taking care of the police would severely damage capabilities to enforce the law and prevent terror attacks,” Ms Lapidot said.
Ms Lapidot also fears that the force could be politicised. “We can assume Mr Ben-Gvir wants a private militia so he can address whatever he wants, whenever he wants,” she said.
“I’m not sure any western country has a private army for one minister. Syria and Iran, for example, have a private army only answerable to the government,” she added.
Ms Lapidot is also concerned by a national guard’s effect on Israel’s Arab population.
“People’s trust is crucial for any government entity and even more so for the police. A national guard along the lines currently being explored risks normalising selective enforcement. If that were to happen at the expense of Arabs, then trust is going to be further weakened,” Ms Lapidot said.
“We have delicate, if you can call it that, relations with the Arab population and the police force. If they think they’re going to be the target of this national guard then it is going to be even worse.”
But Prof Siboni said opponents of the move are incorrectly “contaminating their views with politics”.
“The fears are absolutely ridiculous. Those against the idea are not seeing the magnitude of the problem we face,” Prof Siboni added.
He says that “many liberal democratic states have a variety of security forces, such as Italy and Spain”.
“This would not alienate Arabs,” Prof Siboni said.
“It would do the opposite. The first to suffer in such situation are the Arabs not involved in tensions. Peaceful populations are always terrified by the riots of a very active minority," he said.