BE’ER SHEVA/LYDD, OCCUPIED PALESTINE — In cities across 1948-occupied Palestine (modern-day Israel), Israelis are taking up arms to defend against so-called Palestinian terror.
A wave of Palestinian-initiated attacks against Israelis occurred just before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in March, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to call on civilians to arm themselves. “Whoever has a gun license, this is the time to carry a gun,” Bennett said in a video statement following the violence.
His request was met, as Israeli settlers in the Naqab, Lydd, and the Occupied West Bank have organized armed vigilante groups and are training in what they’ve called “self-defense” or to “protect” other settlers.
Eran Nissan — chief operating officer at Mehazkim, an Israeli progressive digital movement — explained the sentiment behind these militias’ formation. “Israelis were saying, ‘Arabs were trying to kill us and we called the police and the police didn’t come,’” Nissan said of the public’s feelings following the Gaza war last May. “This is the trauma, and on top of this, we see the rise of these militias — these private, armed gangs of Jewish Israelis that took to the streets to either bring back safety and security or reclaim Jewish honor.”
Sayeret Barel, a Jewish-supremacist militia in disguise
In December, a vigilante group called Sayeret Barel (Hebrew for Barel Patrol) was established in the Naqab, a southern desert region in 1948-occupied Palestine. The group was started by Almog Cohen, the Southern coordinator for the Kahanist Jewish Power political party — the same party far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir belongs to. Cohen didn’t respond to requests for comment from MintPress News.
On its website, Sayeret Barel describes itself as a “civilian force of volunteers” that “will strengthen the enforcement agencies and increase the circle of security.” “Unfortunately, at the moment, the Negev [Naqab] is in constant decline, and the scale of crime is growing rapidly,” the group’s website reads. “If we do not take control and act, the situation will not get any better — it will get much worse.”
Condemnation of Sayeret Barel has been swift. On March 31, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), an Israeli organization advocating for Bedouin communities in the Naqab, sent a letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Dr. Fernand de Varennes, notifying him of the group’s establishment. “There is no room for private militias seeking to ostensibly operate within a legal framework and actually take the law into their own hands,” NCF wrote, noting that such militias typically form in proto-fascist regimes.
As Ramadan approached this year, it was obvious that Israel was going to spill Palestinian blood in Al-Aqsa.
The group held its initiation ceremony in March, describing it as an opportunity to sign up for the Civil Guard, a volunteer unit within the Israeli police force. Civil Guard volunteers operate alongside the police and cannot work without a police officer present. Initially supportive, the police withdrew their support of Sayeret Barel after the group launched a crowdfunding campaign that the police said is in violation of the Civil Service Law, which prohibits law enforcement from raising and receiving funds.
While Sayeret Barel’s launch event described it as cooperating with the police, Mehazkim’s research highlighted how the group’s rhetoric characterizes it as an entity acting outside police authority. Specifically, Cohen, the group’s leader, said in an October interview with Israeli news channel Now 14 that, “We will set up an armed volunteer body that will protect the residents of the south. We have not received a permit yet and we do not intend to wait for any bureaucracy.” The group’s website also distinguishes itself from the Civil Guard, writing, “We are an independent force and there are several advantages: A fighter will receive authority even when he is not close to a policeman. We are not dependent on any political factors.”
Mehazkim’s Nissan described Sayeret Barel’s claims it’s working with the police as a façade. “It’s not about helping the police. It’s about substituting [for] the police,” Nissan said.
According to NCF, Sayeret Barel has recruited around 200 volunteers. The group says each volunteer will be given the power to search, detain and arrest, and that the force is divided into three squads: Quick-Response, where members will undergo anti-terror training; Patrol, where members will receive shooting training; and Technical, which manages administrative operations. Training is already underway as evidenced by Facebook posts from the Negev Rescue Committee, another organization Cohen runs.
The organization states it works with the police and the municipality of Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the Naqab. The Be’er Sheva Municipality did not respond to MintPress News’ inquiries requesting confirmation or denial of its collaboration with Sayeret Barel.
While Sayeret Barel calls itself an apolitical organization, Nissan described Cohen as a political activist whose Jewish Power Party agenda is very much a feature of Sayeret Barel. “Almog Cohen is very racist, nationalistic, right-wing in his statements — talking about Arabs as potential terrorists, calling for revenge, talking about herding non-combatants or bystanders, calling soldiers that fight orders to stop shooting heroes,” Nissan said.
Sayeret Barel is named after Barel Hadaria Shmueli, a border police officer who was killed near the Gaza Border in August. His death triggered a political campaign criticizing Prime Minister Bennett and the Israeli army’s policy of use of force as too lenient. In the wake of this political initiative, Sayeret Barel was born. “This is a political, organized attempt to weaken the support in the current government. This is a very political campaign that is masked as something from the bottom up, but it’s organized by a political party,” Nissan said.
“All of this is part of the Jewish-supremacy ecosystem — the pro-occupation, pro-settlement, xenophobic hate, and violent right wing in Israel,” Nissan said.
Settlers patrolling the streets
The Naqab isn’t the only area in Palestine dealing with the emergence of armed militias. As it did last year, the city of Lydd is again facing threats from armed settler groups.
The Guardians of Lod (Lydd), an armed militia group, was formed following the recent attacks against Israelis. The group held an inaugural conference in March. Fida Shehadeh, a Palestinian city council member, registered for the conference as a way to notify the organizers that the Palestinian residents are aware of these armed Jewish groups. “The conference was held to have Jewish residents be armed and use weapons whenever they see suitable, whenever they see there’s a threat on their lives,” Shehadeh said, emphasizing that municipal members are part of this group.
Despite police logos on the conference’s promotional material, the Israel Police told MintPress News it did not attend the conference and it was held contrary to their position. Lydd Mayor Yair Revivo did not respond to press inquiries on the establishment of armed militias in his city.
Shehadeh described the militia as broken down into various committees: the neighborhood committee, marching committee and parenting committee. “They’re trying to integrate these committees into the educational system, in a sense that they want the police to support them in making these committees official, so they can create what they call safety and security for the neighborhoods,” Shehadeh said. Shehadeh also said the group is inviting Jewish Israelis from other areas on social media to join their cause in Lydd.
Attacks against Palestinians haven’t occurred yet in Lydd, but elsewhere in Palestine Jewish violence against Palestinians has already erupted. Settler violence escalated after the attacks against Israelis, with settlers vandalizing Palestinian property with racist graffiti, setting cars ablaze, and throwing rocks at Palestinian homes and vehicles across the West Bank.
This month, members of the violent, right-wing settler movement Hilltop Youth posted a disturbing image of a man pinned to the ground, claiming he had entered an illegal settlement outpost and attacked them. As revealed by +972 magazine, the man in the photo is 63-year-old Nasif Abdel Jaber, a Palestinian-American with brain cancer. Abdel Jaber told +972 he was on his private agricultural land when the group attacked him.
Reports have also emerged of Hilltop Youth members in the West Bank organizing armed militias to patrol the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Occupied East Jerusalem during Ramadan. Hilltop Youth did not respond to requests for comment.
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Israeli gun culture
Requests for gun licenses by Israelis have spiked in recent weeks as well, with more than 1,500 firearm applications submitted in one day in March compared to the daily average of 60. But armed Israelis are nothing new, especially within the West Bank settler population, which is heavily armed, Nissan detailed. Likening the current mood among Israelis to that of American gun enthusiasts’ rhetoric, Nissan said, “Israeli Jewish society is packing up guns now, and it’s really easy to arm a society, but it’s really complicated to disarm a society.”
Amid ongoing violence, Israeli settlers are leading provocative, flag-waving marches across Palestine — including through Jerusalem’s Old City — in a fashion reminiscent of last year’s tensions. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if we have armed Jews patrolling the streets, because an argument might escalate into a shoot-out and someone is going to lose their life. And then we’ll see violence erupt again, like we’ve seen just a year ago,” Nissan said.
From Nissan’s vantage point, these armed militias are doing the opposite of aiding the police, and instead are looking for points of friction between Jews and Palestinians at which to agitate. “They want to promote their narrative that Jews and Arabs are in this infinite religious war,” Nissan said. “And they’re there to escalate when the police’s main role is to de-escalate a situation.”
Feature photo | Israeli forces search for assailants near the scene of a shooting attack in Tel Aviv, April 7, 2022. Ariel Schalit | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.