Israeli Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem
Israeli Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, April 2, 2023. Reuters

Israel authorised on Sunday a national guard sought by far-right security chief Itamar Ben-Gvir to focus on Arab unrest, but held off on giving him direct command after political rivals voiced concern the force could become a sectarian "militia."

The previous government began setting up an auxiliary police force to tackle internal violence following pro-Palestinian protests in mixed Jewish-Arab areas during the Gaza war of May 2021. That government fell before the new force was finalised.

Ben-Gvir, a hardline Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank with past convictions for support for terrorism and incitement against Arabs - who make up 21% of Israel's population - rose in politics partly due to the 2021 unrest.

Having recanted some of his views, he joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition with an expanded law-and-order portfolio that he pledged would include a beefed-up national guard for use mainly in crime- and rioting-hit Arab communities.

"It will deal with this exclusively. The police does not deal exclusively with this. It's busy with a thousand and one things," he told Army Radio.

The initiative was jump-started last week, when Netanyahu agreed to bring Ben-Gvir's national guard for cabinet approval after the security minister backed his pause of a judicial overhaul proposal that had triggered nationwide street protests.

But having voted in favour on Sunday, the cabinet said in a statement that the question of whom the national guard would be subordinate to remained open. It appointed a multi-agency panel to submit recommendations on this and other issues in 90 days.

That appeared to be in response to criticism by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara that the cabinet decision was made without first establishing the parameters of the national guard.

Israel's police chief, Inspector-General Yaacov Shabtai, has expressed misgivings that the national guard, if not under his own force's control, "could prove most costly and even harm the security of the citizenry," according to the Ynet news site.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid last week scorned the proposed national guard as "a private militia for a dangerous Tik-Tok clown" - a reference to Ben-Gvir's volubility on social media.

"Why does the State of Israel - which has an army, police, military intelligence, the Shin Bet, Mossad, National Security Council, Prisons Service, riot police, a SWAT team - need another national guard?" tweeted Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh.

Ben-Gvir said he wants control of the national guard because, in his view, it had been neglected by police chiefs. But he told Army Radio he was willing to consider letting them stay in charge "if they're serious and really want it."

The national guard will take months to get off the ground, he said, with an initial intake of 1,850 personnel that could include seconded or reservist police officers and volunteers, from both Arab and Jewish sectors.

(Writing by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Maytaal Angel; Editing by Hugh Lawson, David Holmes and Matthew Lewis)