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Itamar Ben Gvir, the ultra-nationalist accused of stirring up violence in Jerusalem

·5-min read

Israel's police chief has accused MP Itamar Ben Gvir of adding fuel to the fire in Jerusalem and of being partly responsible for the violent demonstrations that have reignited the fuse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the rise of this ultranationalist whose election to the Knesset in March seems to have boosted the confidence of the Israeli far right.

"The person who is responsible for this Intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir:" Israel's police chief, Kobi Shabtai, did not mince his words during the morning briefing with Benjamin Netanhayu. According to Shabtai, the provocations of the ultra-right MP and his supporters have fanned the flames of Palestinian anger and provoked the violent clashes that shook Jerusalem last week.

Ben Gvir was quick to respond, saying that Shabtai should be fired and accusing the police of not using enough force to control the Arab protests.

Among the ultra-right MP's stunts was the opening of an office last week in the middle of Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that has become a symbol of Israeli colonisation. At the end of April, his allies from Lehava, a movement that advocates the banning of marriages between Jews and non-Jews, inflamed the situation by shouting "Death to the Arabs" near the Damascus Gate.

"The police chief was probably not up to the challenge, but he is right to say that Ben Gvir and his movement played a role in this crisis," historian Simon Epstein told FRANCE 24, also pointing to the Islamist extremist's strategy of confrontation. "The result: outbursts of violence in Jerusalem which then spread to mixed cities in the country."

'Aggressive rhetoric'

Ben Gvir entered Israeli public life at the age of 19. In 1995, amid a climate of hatred following the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, he came to the public’s attention when he brandished the Cadillac emblem from then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's car in front of TV cameras.

"We got to his car. We’ll get to him, too," he said. Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist a few weeks later.

Charged more than fifty times by the justice system since his adolescence, notably for incitement to hatred, the Jewish supremacist ended up becoming a lawyer to "defend himself", he said.

"He has become the go-to lawyer for all fanatics and far-right activists," Denis Charbit, a professor of political science at Israel's Open University in Ra’anana, told FRANCE 24.

In 2006, for example, he defended two teenagers accused of participating in the attack on a house in the West Bank where two parents and their baby were burned alive.

Regularly invited to appear on television to stir controversy and boost ratings, Ben Gvir is "a provocative personality with outstanding repartee. He uses aggressive rhetoric and makes very sharp and violent remarks," Charbit said. "In short, he says: 'We are the best and we're going to crush them.'"

Heir of Kahanism

Ben Gvir's xenophobic rhetoric is rooted in the ideology of Meir Kahane, an extremist rabbi who wanted to establish a theocratic state and expel all Arabs from Israel.

Kahane’s ideas were so repulsive to the Israeli political class that when he spoke in the Knesset, where he was a member of parliament between 1984 and 1988, all his colleagues left the chamber. Kahane was assassinated in 1990 and his party was finally banned in 1994 for terrorism and racism.

"Meir Kahane left behind several heirs," Epstein said. "But the most intelligent is Ben Gvir. He understood that he needed to soften the racist discourse because otherwise he could never enter the Knesset."

After three unsuccessful attempts, Ben Gvir was finally elected a member of parliament last March, leading a coalition of religious Zionist parties.

"Netanyahu pushed very hard for these small far-right groups to join forces with Ben Gvir," said Charbit.

Facing several corruption trials, the incumbent prime minister was fighting for his political survival during these elections. "He was desperate for a majority in Parliament. He thought that Ben Gvir was the solution," said Epstein. "It was a victory for the racist ultra-right fringe and a bad sign for co-existence between Jews and Arabs."

The extreme right, uninhibited

Experts interviewed by FRANCE 24 agree that the rise in Parliament of the ultraconservative coalition led by Ben Gvir has encouraged violence among virulent groups of Jewish supremacists, and reinforced their sense of impunity.

"In recent weeks we have seen demonstrations organised by the extreme right in Jerusalem. Previously, these demonstrations would have been banned in the hope of calming things down. But because of Netanyahu’s complicity, the police have been much more tolerant towards them," Epstein said. “Moreover, the other side was also seething. It's as if everything was done to make things explode.

Lynching scenes over the past few days have shocked the public. The most recent was the attack in Bam Yat, near Tel Aviv, on a motorist believed to be Arab by a mob of far-right Israelis. The lynching was broadcast live on primetime television and drew widespread condemnation from the Israeli political class.

Even towns considered to be models of coexistence between Jews and Arabs, such as Saint-Jean-d'Acre, are experiencing unrest and violence. “There have been a lot of positive signs in recent years” on the question of the integration of Arabs into Israeli public life, Epstein said. “But in the space of three weeks we find ourselves in a situation of latent civil war,” Epstein rued.

"I don't know how we're going to fix this," Charbit warned, "Especially if Netanyahu manages to keep his job as prime minister.”

This piece has been translated from the original in French

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