Who is Itamar Ben-Gvir? The far-right Israeli politician provoking violence in Sheikh Jarrah

The Israeli politician provoking violence in Sheikh Jarrah
7 min read
24 February, 2022
In-depth: In Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinians resist forced evictions, one man is at the centre of the tensions. The New Arab takes a deeper look at Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right politician adding fuel to the fire.

On the west side of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Occupied East Jerusalem, Mohammed Abu Hummus walked up a hill carrying two plastic chairs and a table. The Palestinian activist placed the furniture on top of the hill overlooking the makeshift office of far-right Israeli member of Knesset (MK), Itamar Ben-Gvir. Abu Hummus arranged a transparent vase stuffed with artificial, highlighter-yellow tulips on the table, and with that final element, his office was opened.

In less than five minutes, Israeli police removed the table and chairs and argued with Abu Hummus in Hebrew that he could only stay there without furniture because he’s not an MK, so he can’t set up an office. Down below, Ben-Gvir’s parliamentary office — complete with a banner of his face — still stands.

Abu Hummus explained that for the past week, he has set up an office every day on the hillside and every day the police knock it down. The Palestinian activist’s act of protest comes in response to Ben-Gvir of the right-wing extremist Religious Zionism political alliance setting up a tent and folding table on the property of the Salem family, who are in danger of being forcibly displaced next month.

"Ben-Gvir is the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, a far-right ultra-nationalist party, who, after three failed attempts, finally secured his first Knesset seat in 2021"

Ben-Gvir first set up an office in the flashpoint neighbourhood in May of last year during the height of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, but was forced to dismantle it at then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request.

“It was an embarrassing situation for Netanyahu and his supporters, but today, apparently due to the list that comprises the Knesset, [those lawmakers] are supporting him, they want him to be here,” Abu Hummus told The New Arab. Several MKs have visited Ben-Gvir in a show of solidarity this week.

The MK did not respond to The New Arab’s request for comment, but has vowed to remain there until adequate security is provided.

Khalil Salem, a member of the Salem family who was arrested by Israeli forces, argued that it’s not the Palestinians who are pushing violence, but the settlers Ben-Gvir promises to protect.

“The person who does the problems or initiates is a settler,” Khalil Salem said, referring to his next-door settler neighbour.

Israeli forces surround Fatima Salem as she stands outside her family home in Sheikh Jarrah, which faces eviction. [Getty]
Israeli forces surround Fatima Salem as she stands outside her family home in Sheikh Jarrah, which faces eviction. [Getty]

Who is Ben-Gvir?

Ben-Gvir is the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, a far-right ultra-nationalist party, who, after three failed attempts, finally secured his first Knesset seat in 2021. His coalition is made up of the Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam parties — all who espouse racist, xenophobic, and Jewish supremacist ideologies.

Ben-Gvir is a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, an anti-Palestinian extremist who founded the Kach party. After serving one term in the Knesset in the 1980s, Kahane was banned from running again when parliament passed an amendment forbidding political parties that incite racism.

In 1994, four years after Kahane’s assassination, the Kach party was outlawed in Israeli politics. The movement, however, was simply rebranded as Otzma Yehudit, explains David Sheen, a Haifa-based investigative journalist.

“Like the rest of the Kahanist movement, Ben-Gvir’s objective is to ethnically cleanse the entire country of non-Jews, not just Palestinians,” Sheen said. “They aim to exchange Israel's ethnocracy for a theocratic monarchy. And they don't just support terrorism as a means to an end. They believe that killing non-Jews is actually sanctified.”

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While other major Kahanist leaders were disqualified from participating in elections over their past racist statements, Ben-Gvir wasn’t.

“He was very careful with his words,” Sheen said, mentioning how Ben-Gvir encourages his followers to chant “Death to terrorists” at protests instead of “Death to Arabs” to avoid legal trouble.

Despite watching what he says, Ben-Gvir has a heinous track record. He boasts that he has been indicted more than 50 times for hate incitement, although the majority of these charges were acquitted.

As an attorney, he’s defended a notorious list of Jewish extremists involved in terrorism and hate crimes, including a group of settlers who set fire to a Palestinian house, killing an 18-month old baby and both his parents. His most prominent client — Bentzi Gopstein — founded the Jewish, anti-assimilation group Lehava, and allegedly called for churches in Israel to be burned down.

Ben-Gvir’s living room was once adorned with a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, a Kahanist who killed 29 Palestinians in 1994 in what is known as the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre.  Ben-Gvir reportedly took down the photo upon Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s objection. Ben-Gvir’s idolization for Goldstein runs deep, and he even dressing up as the mass murderer for the Jewish holiday of Purim one year after the attack and declaring Goldstein “his hero.”

"Despite watching what he says, Ben-Gvir has a heinous track record. He boasts that he has been indicted more than 50 times for hate incitement"

Otzma Yehudit’s political victory is largely attributed to Netanyahu, who allied with Religious Zionism in hopes of securing his political survival and preventing a corruption trial. But Sheen suggested Netanyahu’s strategizing isn’t solely responsible.

“One of Kahanists’ strategies is to infiltrate the party that has ruled Israel for most of the last few decades, the Likud party,” Sheen said, noting the group created a Kahanist faction within Likud 20 years ago called Jewish Leadership. “While that Kahanist faction was never able to overtake the reins of the party, it did eventually come to have a large influence.”

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and analyst, says Ben-Gvir is using his ascension into politics to push forward a Kahanist agenda beyond the Knesset and into Israeli society.

“He's not just a politician,” Buttu said. “Because he’s not camera-shy and not ashamed or embarrassed by his position regarding the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, he’s now taken his new work as normalising this within Israeli discourse. And he has.”

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Police and settler violence raging on

Ben-Gvir’s presence in Sheikh Jarrah and call for greater police protection has resulted in increased threats and attacks on Palestinians from both settlers and the police.

CCTV footage caught a settler pepper-spraying Khalil Salem’s mother, Fatima Salem, as she walked into her home on Sunday night. The next day, the 70-year-old was hospitalised after being attacked by settlers and police.

Abu Hummus, who walks with crutches, was thrown to the ground by police as they tore down his office on Tuesday. The Israel Police told The New Arab, Abu Hummus “was removed from the premises after violating the public order.” The police spokesperson did not address why he was handled with such brutal force.

“Settlers attack under the supervision and under the eyes of the police,” says resident Mahmoud Al-Hajj. Police have also raided families’ homes and arrested children.

"For now, an Israeli court has frozen the eviction order against the Salem family in a brief respite from an ongoing battle against the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah"

In response to the intensified settler and police violence, Israeli police said in a statement that “any report or complaint received by the police about violence and damage to property is treated and thoroughly investigated to bring those involved to justice.”

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, 31 Palestinians have been injured and 12 arrested during confrontations with Israeli forces in Sheikh Jarrah this week.

For now, an Israeli court has frozen the eviction order against the Salem family in a brief respite from an ongoing battle against the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah. 

Clashes on the ground, clashes in the Knesset

While the extremist lawmaker has received support from like-minded politicians like Religious Zionism Party leader, MK Bezalel Smotrich, other Israeli officials accused Ben-Gvir of provoking conflict.

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Ben-Givr is not there to protect Jews, he's there to incite violence and set the place aflame, a sad provocateur," Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told KAN Radio on Tuesday. “Arabs and Jews alike will die because of the actions of this man.”

Defence Minister Benny Gantz echoed Lapid, telling Ben-Gvir, “You are acting against the security, diplomatic and social interests of the country. Don’t fan the violence… This isn’t a game, these are people’s lives.”

Like Israeli politicians, Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah fear Ben-Gvir’s presence could escalate tensions into war.

“He's dragging the area into the same square of violence that happened last May,” Abu Hummus said, “where people were in danger of losing their lives due to the brutal treatment of the police with the residents.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum