Regardless of the outcome of the ceasefire that stopped nearly two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israeli domestic security services say they face an unprecedented threat from right wing extremist Israeli groups intent on creating tensions with Palestinians.
An Israeli domestic security official, who refused to be named while discussing the politically dangerous issue of Jewish extremism, said that warning signs of increasing militancy had been rising among right-wing groups but were largely ignored as Israel held four closely fought and ultimately inconclusive elections over the past two years.
“We obviously have most of our focus on terrorism and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has been focused on his political and legal battles in a way that did not lend itself to carefully monitoring the people he considers political allies,” said the Shin Bet official. “But now there’s no denying the problem after what we have seen in Jerusalem and Lod.”
Netanyahu faces a string of legal problems over a longstanding series of corruption charges. He has been at least temporarily shielded from trial by his office but with four elections passed and no clear victor or ability to form a government himself, keeping even the most radical of coalition allies appeased appears to be the difference between remaining prime minister and facing trial.
And that apparent unwillingness to confront right wing groups worries the security official, who described some of the newer political parties as “borderline terrorists.”
Then there are the followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who in the 1980s helped radicalise the West Bank settler movement by leading such virulently anti-Palestinian marches that he was declared a domestic terrorist and banned from Israel.
Kahanists, according to multiple Israeli security reports and local media coverage, were at the forefront of a series of attacks on Israeli Arab citizens in sections of Jerusalem and the mixed city of Lod as hostilities arose first in the Arab neighbourhoods of Occupied East Jerusalem and al-Aqsa Mosque and then spread throughout much of the country, sending Arabs and Jews into street clashes in some of the worst communal violence seen in Israel for years.
“This is why we were forced to brief the prime minister that there was a potential Jewish intifada underway, there were elements of the Jewish right attempting to instigate ethnic violence against Arabs for political gain,” said the Shin Bet official. “This is the definition of terrorism.”
Right-wing Jewish groups openly organised a series of attacks on Palestinian homes and businesses via WhatsApp, which the Shin Bet official said hinted of broader organsiations, such as political parties, being behind at least some of the violence.
According to widespread reports in Israeli media, Israel’s top police official, Kobi Shabtai, briefed Netanyahu on this very subject on the 14th of May, after a week of ultra-nationalist demonstrations and violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli police units at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound that spilled into violence in Lod, Haifa, Jaffa and other mixed Jewish and Arab cities.
“Kobi has had it with the Kahanists and had to go directly to Bibi and tell him that the main problem this time wasn’t Arabs but [Itamar] Ben Gvir and his party sending members to the streets to confront Arabs and police and push the already terrible situation into an even worse one,” said the Shin Bet official.
Ben Gvir represents the Kahanist Religious Zionism Party or Lehava, which allows for no peace process or even coexistence with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, and is considered by much of the Israeli political system to represent the hardest right wing views in Israel.
“The person who is responsible for this intifada is Itamar Ben Gvir. It started with the Lehava protest at Damascus Gate,” Shabtai reportedly told Netanyahu. “It continued with provocations in Sheikh Jarrah, and now he is moving around with Lehava activists.”
“At every scene of tensions between Arabs and Jews in Israel last week there were these guys from Lehava trying to start pogroms against Arab homes and businesses, it was open insurrection against the state,” said the Shin Bet official. “But with a fifth election likely, who in the government can really crack down on these key political players, they might be small parties but just a handful of seats in the Knesset can be the difference between Bibi staying in office or heading to jail.”