Ben-Gvir: Provocateur or symbol of slipping sovereignty over Jerusalem?

Is Israel embracing an appeasement strategy focused on preventing Jews from behaving “provocatively” rather than adopting a zero tolerance policy for rioting and violence?

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

When Religious Zionist MK Itamar Ben- Gvir set up a symbolic parliamentary office in front of the firebombed home of a Jewish family in the eastern Jerusalem Shimon HaTzadik (Sheikh Jarrah) neighborhood, he knew he was asking for trouble.

The lawmaker sat at a table under an awning in the flashpoint neighborhood, saying he would not leave the area until the Israeli police stepped up security efforts for Jewish residents in the area. His presence was vehemently rejected by Arab locals, who clashed for hours with his supporters in an attempt to drive him out of the neighborhood.

On Sunday evening, Ben-Gvir was physically evicted from the site – in violation of his parliamentary immunity – by police. During the scuffle, he fainted and was transported to a local hospital for tests.

Before jetting off to Bahrain on Monday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Hebrew-language media that Ben-Gvir is a “provocateur who fanned the flames in the area for political reasons.”

But no matter how one feels about Ben-Gvir’s ideology, the idea that a sitting member of the Israeli parliament being physically present in a neighborhood in the capital city is inherently provocative raises serious questions around Israel’s approach towards security in Jerusalem.

The decision to remove Ben-Gvir came hours after a warning from the Gaza-based Hamas terror group that his continued presence in the area would result in serious “consequences” for Israel. The previous day, Arabs threw rocks and other projectiles at Jewish residents of the neighborhood and security forces, following the announcement that the lawmaker would visit Sheikh Jarrah.

While the idea of instantly turning down the flames by clearing out the lawmaker and his supporters is understandable, critics say that Ben-Gvir’s removal from Sheikh Jarrah signals a growing shift towards an appeasement strategy rather than a zero tolerance policy towards Arab rioting and violence.

Putting out fires vs. long-term deterrence

By placing the onus on Jews not to “provoke,” rather than focusing on swift, decisive action when unrest occurs, right-wing activists say, the state is essentially rewarding bad behavior and weakening its own sovereignty, particularly in Jerusalem.

“There is a policy of ‘mowing the grass’ when it comes to [clamping down on terror and unrest in] eastern Jerusalem,” Chaim Silberstein, founder and chair of Keep Jerusalem, an NGO focused on strengthening Israeli sovereignty in the capital city, told World Israel News.

“The police have lost their deterrence when it comes to Shimon HaTzadik,” he said, adding that “they’re busy putting out fires” and aren’t able to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy that ensures long-term security.

Silberstein said he believes that the Israeli government has a “kick the can down the road” policy, meaning that tough decisions that could spark backlash are delayed for as long as possible.

He cited the recent case of the Salam family, whom an Israeli court determined is illegally living in a Jewish-owned property.

The court ordered that the family be immediately evicted, but the police requested that their removal be delayed until after the Ramadan holiday over fears that the timing could trigger unrest.

Silberstein cited this decision as an example of “capitulation to terror” and a general wariness on the part of the Israeli police to wade into potentially explosive situations.

One reason for that attitude, he said, is that police “don’t feel that they have allies in the state’s prosecutors. They’re worried that they’re going to find themselves under the very strong and liberal microscope of the [state’s] prosecution, and they don’t want to expose themselves to that.”

Proactively policing Jews

Israeli government efforts focused on minimizing Jewish “provocations,” rather than proactive crackdowns on Arab rioting, aren’t a phenomenon exclusive to the capital city.

Israel National News reported last week that the Shin Bet security agency has engaged in extended outreach to rabbis ahead of the Ramadan holiday, which in recent years has seen an uptick in Arab violence.

But that outreach isn’t aimed at determining the security needs of Jewish communities. Rather, it’s focused on ensuring that Jews don’t do anything to spark Arab ire, which could lead to clashes like those seen in mixed Arab-Jewish municipalities during May 2021’s Operation Guardian of the Walls conflict.

Prominent Religious Zionist Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, spoke to Hebrew language media about his interaction with the security agency. He said that the Shin Bet asked him to “restrain” his followers from engaging in “provocative” behavior ahead of the Muslim holy month.

“I have the greatest of respect for [the Shin Bet], and I used to meet with them,” he told radio station Reshet Bet in a recent interview.

“But this political organ of theirs wants to portray Jews as being responsible for the problems we have here, when 99 percent of violent incidents are caused by Arabs. Is Jewish graffiti really going to ignite the Middle East?”

Police claim Ben-Gvir incident ‘distorted’

In response to a request from  World Israel News for comment, police repeated its statement to media referencing “distorted” Hebrew language media reports and disputing Ben-Gvir’s version of events.

“During activity of the [security] forces on the spot, Knesset member Ben-Gvir, began trying to disturb the police and push them,” the statement said.

“The policemen who were at the scene tried to calm him down and prevent his rampage. One of the officers even received a blow to his upper body…We are sorry for the attempt to discredit the police officers who acted to maintain public order while distorting reality.”

Ben Gvir denies those allegations. “[Internal Security Minister] Omer Bar-Lev gave an order to beat me up, not just [to take apart] the office but also me personally, and the officers carry it out,” he told reporters.