The retired senior Israeli officials called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avert the potential outbreak of a third Palestinian intifada (Arabic for “uprising”) with the immediate dismissal of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
By Erin Viner
The controversial politician attained expanded control over the Israel Police as part of coalition negotiations to join the right-wing government that assumed office late December, including influence over the setting of general policy.
Long having advocated the razing of illegal structures built by Palestinians without authorization, he recently announced that the next demolitions will take place during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The holiday, expected to begin on 22 March, has been marred by an upsurge of Arab violence in recent years; while clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian rioters generally erupt during the dismantling.
Such activity is effectively equivalent to “throwing a lit match into a barrel of gunpowder, which may at best bring upon us the third intifada and at worst unnecessarily ignite … the Muslim world (against Israel),” 25 former police chiefs and commanders wrote in a letter to Netanyahu published yesterday. Signatories include former Israel Police Commissioners Rafi Peled (1993-1994), Assaf Hefetz (1994-1997), Shlomo Aharonishki (2001-2004), Moshe Karadi (2004-2007) Roni Alsheich (2015-2018), who argued that every effort should be undertaken to reduce rather that exacerbate tensions as has been done in previous years.
Other friction with police has been caused over the National Security Minister’s push for a broad anti-terror operation in Jerusalem, and orders for a crackdown on anti-government protesters amid his insistence that he holds the final word on such policies.
Charging that Ben-Gvir’s actions are “contrary to the powers granted to him by law,” the letter accused him of “interference in the decision-making process during police operations and exploitation of events and the police for his political purposes.”
The retired top police brass also appealed to “all former police officers and their families who support police and democracy” to participate alongside them this coming Saturday at weekly anti-government protests under the banner of “saving the police from Ben-Gvir.”
Retired Jerusalem Police Chief Yair Yitzhaki pointed out that demolitions have historically been suspended during Ramadan, not only during his own tenure but “many years before that as well.”
During an interview with the Ynet news service yesterday, Yitzhaki said, “Ben-Gvir is playing with fire. There’s no need to act like a pyromaniac around holy sites like the Temple Mount. Netanyahu appointed a minister devoid of any experience to run the Israeli police.”
Yitzhaki, who served as Commander of the Jerusalem District 1997-2001, accused Minister Ben-Gvir of “treating the police like his own personal toy,” reiterating that, “These are very sensitive times and if Netanyahu doesn’t rein him in, we could be looking at a third Intifada.”
During his time at the helm of the Jerusalem police, the former commander had cautioned against a controversial 28 September 2000 visit to the Temple Mount by then-Opposition Leader Ariel Sharon just prior to his election as Prime Minister. Yitzhaki lost consciousness when a thrown rock struck his head and at least 13 other officers were injured during ensuing Arab riots when the visit proceeded – which many view as one of the main triggers for the 200o-2005 Second Palestinian Intifada.
Quick to denounce his detractors, Ben-Gvir stated that, “Yair Yitzhaki was a failed officer who was sloppy in his work. He was thrown out of the police force and now shouts from the peanut gallery.” He went on to claim that many of the retired commanders who signed the letter against him had “destroyed the police force and made it political.”
Israeli officials have also spoken out against Ben-Gvir’s practice of failing to inform them directly of new policies and demands, opting to instead reveal such announcements via social media and press interviews.
Sources cited by local media say Ben-Gvir’s demand for the expedition and increase of demolitions led to a clash with Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai, who reportedly informed the minister, “that’s not how decisions are made.” Moreover, police sources considered a letter Ben-Gvir sent to Shabtai last week as an unwelcome intervention and undermining of a district commander, in which he praised use of unusually harsh measures against protestors at what he deems to be “attempts at anarchy” during anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv, including stun grenades.
Motivated over concern of backlash on the matter by Palestinians and the international community, Prime Minister Netanyahu is said to have called on his minister to exercise greater restraint. The Premier then indefinitely delayed imminent plans in February for the tearing down a four-story building in Jerusalem illegally constructed by Arabs in 2014.
Ben-Gvir’s appointment as a senior Cabinet minister was met with immediate outcry.
His lengthy police record – which he said in 2015 racked up to 53 indictments on criminal charges – includes a 2007 conviction for racist incitement. The Israel Bar Association denied his taking of the bar exam until the settlement of several outstanding cases. He was a youth coordinator of the far-right Kach party, considered by Israel and the United States to be a terrorist organization.
As an attorney, he gained notoriety for defending extremist Jewish activists accused of terrorism and hate crimes; also representing the far-right Lehava group opposed to Jewish intermarriage.
He was even exempted from performing compulsory service in the IDF over his extremist activities that once included calls for the expulsion of all Palestinians.
In an adaptation of his views, the MK said in 2019 that only Arabs who are not loyal to Israel must be deported. “I’m for equal rights. But whoever raises his hand against a soldier, whoever comes out against the State of Israel, whoever wants to turn this into Palestine – it’s not where they belong,” Ben-Gvir told Reuters during a campaign stop in Jerusalem ahead for the 1 November election.
Moreover, he has longed voiced support of Jewish prayer at the sacred compound in a challenge to the historic status quo.
After taking office, the far-right leader of the Otzma Yedudit political faction infuriated Palestinians and incurred condemnation by Arab states by visiting the Temple Mount.
The area is considered by the Jewish People as the holiest site in the world, also revered to Christians. It is regarded as the third most sacred site in Islam, following Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Muslims, who built the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the ruins of the biblical temples refer to the contested land as Haram al Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. Symbolizing Palestinian statehood aspirations, it is the most sensitive site in their conflict with Israel.
Even though Israel regards the entirety of of Jerusalem as its eternal capital and the center of the Jewish faith, it has observed the “status quo” arrangement that existed prior to its reunification of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War, that bars Jewish prayer at the compound as not to ‘inflame Muslim anger.’ Religious worship on the al-Aqsa compound is restricted to Muslims, while Jews pray at the Western Wall nearby.
Following Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the controversy by repeating his pledge to uphold the so-called ‘Status Quo’ at the holy site.