Ben-Gvir’s ‘sweet children’ are headache for security chiefs

IDF and Shin Bet chiefs advocated the use of administrative detention against ringleaders of settler violence but the National Security Minister opposed the move


The damage caused to Palestinian homes and cars by Jewish settlers in the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, on June 21, 2023. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** חיילים כניסה לכפר חייל חיילים שומרים כפר תורמוס עיא

June 29, 2023 12:44

One of the few legacies of the British Mandate still remaining in the Israeli legal system is the State of Emergency law, which allows the minister of defence to sign administrative detention orders for periods of up to six months, during which the detainee has no right to trial.

It is used primarily against terror suspects, usually Palestinian, but also some Jews when the Shin Bet security service cannot present the evidence against them in court for fear of endangering their sources.

Some of the ministers in Israel’s earlier governments had been the subject of these orders in the Mandate era. But until the current government, there had never been a minister who had been detained without trial under Israeli jurisdiction.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a high-level meeting with security chiefs to discuss the recent outbreak of attacks by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Both IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Shin Bet Chief Ronen Bar advocated the use of administrative detention against ringleaders. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir opposed the move.

“Most of them are sweet children,” he protested. “An administrative detention order makes them heroes. I got an order when I was 18.” The generals and security officials in the room buried themselves in their briefing papers.

Despite Ben-Gvir’s objections, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant signed four administrative detention orders this week against settlers.

A ministry source explained that the four had been involved in the arson attacks following the murder of four Israeli citizens last Tuesday outside Eli. In an attempt to mollify his coalition partner, Netanyahu agreed not to issue an official condemnation of the settler violence in the name of the cabinet, as Gallant implored him to.

There have been similar waves of settler vigilantism in the past, usually following deadly terror attacks on Israelis.

“I’ve had periods where I’ve spent more time in meetings with the Shin Bet’s ‘Jewish department’ getting updates on settler violence than I had with the Shin Bet agent responsible in my sector for Palestinian terror,” said one senior officer who in the past commanded a territorial brigade in the West Bank.

“This wave of violence is different in two ways — the number of those involved and the fact that they’re not even trying to hide like in the past when most attacks against Palestinians were carried out at night,” says another senior officer. “The only explanation for this is that they now have ministers like Ben-Gvir in cabinet representing them and they feel they can get away with it.”

Bibi heads to China:

The news that Netanyahu has been invited to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing shouldn’t have come as a surprise. China has been increasingly active in recent months in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

Three months ago it brokered a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two regional powers agreeing to re-establish diplomatic ties after a seven-year rift.

Earlier this month Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was a guest in Beijing, the Chinese offering both to convene an international conference on relaunching the dormant “diplomatic process” between Israel and the Palestinians, and to mediate between the warring Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas as well. It was only natural that they would engage at some point with Israel too.

What is intriguing about the news is that the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, which is usually reticent when it comes to disclosing Netanyahu’s travel plans in advance, was in this case uncharacteristically forthcoming in confirming that he was indeed planning to fly to China.

In fact, according to the statement, it notified the Biden administration of the invitation a month ago.

But when is this visit supposed to take place? Apparently, no date has been set and it is not likely to be until the autumn. So why all this noise for a trip that may or may not happen in another four months?

Israeli diplomatic sources surmise that Netanyahu is trying to convince President Joe Biden to pay a bit more attention to the region.

This hardly seems necessary. American diplomats have said in recent weeks that the reason for their increased attempts to reach a whole range of deals — with Iran on nuclear development, with the Saudis on a new strategic alliance, and between Israel and Saudi — is precisely because the president is concerned that the Chinese are usurping America’s traditional role in the Middle East.

Netanyahu, celebrated for so many years for being a shrewd diplomatic operator, seems to be a little late to the party. But then, he has had a lot on his plate lately.

Like so many other countries, Israel also has to plot a careful path in an increasingly bipolar world. Israel has fallen foul of its American ally a number of times in the past couple of decades in its eagerness to do business with the Chinese.

Even during the super-friendly Trump administration, individual Israeli ministers were read the riot act on the matter by the American ambassador.

Gradually, the message sank in, and Chinese businessmen, who in previous years couldn’t get enough of Israeli technology, are now visiting much less frequently. Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has been frozen out of Israeli infrastructure projects.

Elbridge Colby, who served as the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Strategy and Force Development, was in Israel this week, meeting policymakers.

Colby is currently writing books and working in think tanks, but is expected to play a role in a future Republican administration with a special focus on confronting China.

His message to the Israelis he met was stark. In the coming years, America will increasingly have to focus its attention and military resources on China, especially after having been diverted since last February by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

America’s allies, at least those who aren’t in the first island chain in the East and South China Seas, should take note, said Colby, and shoulder more responsibility for stability in their own parts of the world.

June 29, 2023 12:44

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