Coming soon: Israelis, too, will call in their national guard - analysis

Effectuating Israeli sovereignty may seem like a contradictory idea. The country is the sovereign, that should be enough. But it's not.

 Israeli police officers at a temporary police checkpoint, during the search for the terrorist who murdered three people earlier tonight, near Elad, May 5, 2022. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Israeli police officers at a temporary police checkpoint, during the search for the terrorist who murdered three people earlier tonight, near Elad, May 5, 2022.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

If a plan Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke about at Sunday’s cabinet meeting actually comes to fruition, then by the end of the year the well-worn American phrase “call in the National Guard” will need a Hebrew equivalent.

For if Bennett has his way, an Israeli national guard will soon join the IDF, Border Police and police on the roads and streets of the country to help restore to Israelis a sense of personal security badly dented by the recent wave of terror.

If the overarching objective of the army is to defend the country’s borders, if the principal aim of the police is to fight crime and enforce the law, and if the main objective of the Border Police is to stand guard on the seamline between the West Bank and Israel, then the job of the National Guard will be to effectuate Israeli sovereignty within the Green Line and to deal with rioting Arabs and road closures during times of war and smaller military campaigns.

Effectuating Israeli sovereignty may seem like a contradictory idea. The country is the sovereign, that should be enough. But it’s not.

Over the last number of years the public has come to realize that there are vast tracts in this country – from kibbutz fields in the Arava, to Bedouin areas in the Negev, to agricultural communities in the Galilee and Golan, to haredi cities in the center of the country and Arab cities in the Triangle – where Israeli sovereignty is simply not applied, and where seemingly semi-autonomous areas have emerged where the central government has little sway.

Servicemen of the Ukrainian National Guard take positions in central Kyiv, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, February 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH)Servicemen of the Ukrainian National Guard take positions in central Kyiv, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, February 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH)

Areas have sprung up where the law of the land is neither respected nor abided by, and where rules and regulations are not evenly or equally enforced.

“The supreme mission of the Government of Israel is to restore personal security to the citizens of Israel,” Bennett said on Sunday. The next night, a Channel 13 poll showed just how that sense of personal security has been eroded by the recent string of attacks.

Asked on a scale of one to 10 to grade their sense of security, the average score given by those polled was 4.24. That is anything but a resounding vote of confidence in the government’s ability to protect life and property – the primary mission of any state.

Bennett said that he has directed the National Security Council, together with the Public Security Ministry, to present the government by the end of the month with “an orderly and budgeted plan” for the establishment of a national guard.  He said this guard will be based on existing border police units, which will be supplemented by specially trained units of volunteers and reservists who will be activated during emergencies and disturbances, but also operate during normal times as well.

During regular times, one of the national guard’s duties will be simply to be a presence in areas where there has been little or no security presence for years. 

“The urgent need to strengthen the personal security of the citizens of Israel was born a year ago during the events of Operation Guardian of the Walls, mainly in the mixed cities, and it is more urgent than ever in the current wave of terrorism,” Bennett said.

“Time and time again, we see the difference between incidents in which there was a responsible armed civilian in the area and those in which there was not. The need is great, especially in the haredi cities, in which fewer people carry weapons. We are taking action,” Bennett declared.

That the government is to take action on this matter is to be cheered. What deserves to be jeered, however, is that it did not take similar action and establish a national guard much earlier.

Already during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring and fall of 2020, when closures were more often broken than observed in many haredi and Arab communities, there was discussion of the creation of a national guard to enforce the closure.

Why a national guard? Because neither soldiers nor border police were trained nor mandated to enforce a closure on Israeli civilian areas, and because the police – busy doing a lot of other things – had neither the will nor the manpower to enforce the closures.

There was talk then about creating a national guard to do the job, but that talk did not result in any concrete action. As so often happens in this country, other issues forced themselves to the top of the agenda, and pushed this particular idea to the side.  

And then, exactly a year ago, Operation Guardian of the Walls broke out, and with it the rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab cities: Jaffa, Lod, Acre, Ramle and Haifa. The police were caught unprepared and unable alone to deal with disturbances, and it took several days for it to finally get a handle on the situation. That, too, led to talk about the formation of a national guard.

Indeed, one of the main lessons from last year’s mini-war was that a radicalized segment of the Israeli Arab population will likely become involved in any future confrontation with Gaza. This involvement could take the form of the type of rioting witnessed last year in the mixed cities, or the blocking of key roads leading to sensitive installations – something that also took place during Operation Guardian of the Walls, when Highway 31 near the important Nevatim air base in the Negev was blocked on several occasions.

In addition, these events raised questions about whether the IDF – in any future confrontation – would be able to move freely through Wadi Ara.

The national guard, according to the plans currently being discussed, would be the body that would have a key role in dealing with disturbances in mixed cities, as well as the organization responsible for ensuring that the country’s roads remain unimpeded and passable for military use during times of conflict. Members of the national guard would be trained specifically with those tasks in mind.

While this idea was much discussed in the immediate aftermath of Operation Guardian of the Walls, as the months passed – and as bureaucratic turf battles emerged – it was pushed to the side. It emerged again in the midst of the latest surge in terror. There is no need now to wait for yet another crisis – the time to actualize this idea has arrived.