A disciple of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir was ushered into the Israeli parliament last year after a deal brokered by previous PM Netanyahu with religious nationalists.
Hundreds of far-right Jewish ultra-nationalists defied police orders earlier this week and staged a ‘flag march’ through Jerusalem in an attempt to reach Damascus Gate, a landmark in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City. Around 20 people managed to breach police barriers and reached the gate before being turned back.
While many of the flag-waving marchers were young people, the event was championed by Israeli Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of Otzma Yehudit—which translates to Jewish Strength—a party widely considered the ideological successor of the banned extremist Kach party.
Violence at the Al Aqsa mosque compound, mostly face-offs between Palestinians and Israeli riot police escorting far-right Israelis to the premises, has been breaking out since the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, which this year coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Last Friday, more than 150 Palestinians were injured at the compound, prompting Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet to bar Ben Gvir from Damascus Gate under the recommendation of police and security services.
Meanwhile, 18 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank since the beginning of the month, and more than 400 others are injured in confrontation with the Israeli army. On Wednesday, Israel carried out the first air strike on Gaza in months, raising fears of a significant escalation.
Twelve Israelis and two Ukrainians (who were not recent war refugees, according to the authorities) were also killed in a series of attacks by Palestinians in Israel in the worst such escalation in years.
From Friday, settlers have been banned from entering the Al Aqsa mosque compound.
A look at the rise of Ben Gvir and his connection to the settlers’ movement in Israel as fears rise of a further escalation in violence.
Kahanism lives on
Kahanism is an extremist ideology based on the ideas of Meir Kahane, a US-born Orthodox rabbi who espoused a Jewish supremacist ideology and whose party, Kach, was banned from the Knesset. The group he founded in the US, the Jewish Defense League, was labelled a terrorist organisation and was responsible for several killings and acts of violence. Extremist Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, in 1994, also espoused that ideology.
Thirty years after his assassination, Kahane’s ideas live on. In recent years, they have been increasingly mainstreamed in Israeli society and have held sway in Israel’s successive fragile coalition governments – until Ben Gvir’s Kahanist party succeeded in getting a seat in the Knesset last year.
Defending young Jewish extremists
A lawyer by training, Ben Gvir first became known for defending young Jewish extremists suspected of terror and hate crimes.
In 2016, he represented two young extremists charged with the murder of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma following an arson attack. The case, where 18-month toddler Ali Dawabsheh was killed alongside his parents after Molotov cocktails were flung into their homes, caused an international uproar that led to the indictment – but in fact, most cases of settler violence against Palestinians are rarely prosecuted.
Ben Gvir himself lives in a settlement near Hebron in the occupied West Bank.
Ushered into the Knesset
When he turned to politics, he was at first shunned by the political establishment. His entry into the Knesset took place thanks to a deal brokered by then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu between Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party and Religious Zionism, another ultra-nationalist religious outfit now in the opposition. The aim was to consolidate the far-right camp to prevent those votes from going to waste. The united list got six seats and Ben Gvir secured a seat in the Knesset.
At the time of the election, the party’s manifesto stated it would “work to remove the enemies of Israel from our country”, and to “encourage” Palestinians to emigrate from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Some of the people taking part in Wednesday’s march were heard shouting ‘Bibi HaMalech’, or ‘Bibi the king’, a reference to Israel’s former prime minister.
“Ideologically, Bennet is more sympathetic to the settlers than Netanyahu,” Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow of the MENA programme at Chatham House, tells TRT World. Before leading a ‘moderate’ and fragile coalition that includes Arab party Ra’am, Bennet – a right-wing nationalist himself - was known for supporting settlements, which are illegal under international law, and for positioning himself to the right of Netanyahu.
“But Netanyahu in his opportunism knew the value of playing the card of the West Bank and the settlements,” Mekelberg adds.
Last year, a ‘flag march’ through the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem, also attended by Ben Gvir, was one of the triggers of the 11-day Israeli war on Gaza that killed at least 256 Palestinians after rockets were fired into West Jerusalem from Gaza.
Tensions in the city had been rising over the eviction of more than 50 Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Here and elsewhere in East Jerusalem, a law allows Jewish settler groups to reclaim property held there by Jews before 1948. There is no equivalent law to allow Palestinians to reclaim their property in Israel.
At the height of tensions over the evictions, Ben Gvir opened an office in the neighbourhood, leading to clashes, police violence, and arrests.
Earlier in April, a key member of Bennet’s coalition quit, causing the government to lose its majority. The Ra’am Arab party suspended its membership in protest against the continued violence at the Al Aqsa mosque.
“When you are dependent on the whims of any single member of the Knesset, let alone that the government itself is made up of eight different parties that hardly agree about anything, it’s about surviving another day, another week, another month, and keeping an eye on the next election,” Mekelberg says.