A Blow to Internal Security Governance in Israel

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During the October 7th attacks, the home front became the front line with Israelis attacked in their own homes. This new reality led not only to a beefed-up presence of police and military forces in public spaces, but to civilian-based security initiatives in many communities. Finding the right balance between the police and civilians is imperative to providing much-needed safety and security for all Israelis.

Funeral for police officer Vitali Karsik, killed in clashes with Hamas terrorists on October 7. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/ Flash90

Since the October 7 attack, there has been an intensive and understandable public focus on internal security in Israel. The home front became the front line, with civilians attacked in their own homes. Many in the South were left to fend for themselves for hours and even days, leaving a big question mark over the ability of the various defense and security establishments to protect Israel’s citizens. These developments are driving the acceleration of processes that had already begun before the war. Alongside a beefed-up presence of police and military forces in public spaces, there has been a rapid growth in activities by civilians, who stepped in to “take their share of the burden,” by participating in civilian defense and security activity.

This is an understandable response. The trauma caused by the evident helplessness of the state during the first hours of the war has driven civilians to demand immediate access to weapons for self-defense. These changes, however, have far reaching implications. Over the span of just a few weeks, hundreds of civilian defense squads have been set up in cities and rural communities throughout the country; more than 250,000 applications for private firearm licenses have been submitted; and firearms have been distributed in an uncontrolled fashion (including by Knesset members who say they have given weapons to farmers in remote homesteads).

Backed by these developments, non-police organizations have begun to proliferate, with many reports of unregulated defense units being established throughout the country, whose members carry private firearms. Independent civilian organizations have set themselves the goal of improving personal security, acting separately from the state’s security forces. For example, during the first days of the war, civilian activists reported that they had recruited thousands of armed volunteers to “help” in dozens of local authorities, particularly in cities with a majority of Jewish residents and a significant minority of Arab residents)"mixed cities"). Even worse, these same activists have stated that this was done in coordination with the police. Indeed, the police appointed a retired Deputy Commissioner to oversee coordination with these independent armed groups.

Thus, we are seeing a dual development:

On the one hand, a foreign idea is being imported into Israel according to which more firearms means more security—even if the firearms are in private hands. Unlike in any other time in Israel’s history, having access to weapons is being presented as a basic right of Israeli citizens, without any real consideration of the dramatic implications of this change of perception. This way of thinking is most closely associated with the United States, where many see the right to bear arms as sacrosanct, notwithstanding rising concerns over loss of life in mass shootings.

On the other hand, armed private organizations are being established and taking on the roles of the Israel Police. They are becoming de facto militias, undermining the concept of Israeli sovereignty, which has always held that only the police have the authority to maintain public order and protect life and property in the State of Israel. According to this concept, there is clearly no room for the establishment of unregulated civilian defense units or associations of armed activists (with the exception of bodies explicitly permitted by law, such as supervised private security firms), because individuals and organizations do not have the legal authority to create armed militias.

The flood of Israeli citizens volunteering in the field of internal security represents a seismic change in public attitudes in Israel. It builds on the security privatization processes of recent years, which are now coming to a peak. These processes erode the state's monopoly on the use of force, undermining its ability to govern these incredibly serious matters. Post-war Israel will look very different from pre-war Israel, not only because of the collective trauma suffered and the changes yet to come in the country’s external security arrangements, but also due to the changes happening right now in internal security.

As a society that values life and security, it is paramount for Israel to consider the long-term consequences of this transformation. The privatization of security governance that we are currently witnessing, will affect us all, but especially those of us who are already less safe—namely women, minorities, and people in poverty. Moreover, in the short term, there is a very real danger of violence spiraling out of control in 'mixed cities' due to actions by armed civilians, which may drag Israel into conflict on another front with extremely serious consequences.

If the right systems are not put in place within the police, and outside it; if the police are not given the necessary funding and support to train, supervise, and command civilian defense squads, to restrain volunteers, to supervise owners of private firearms, and to immediately confiscate weapons where necessary; and if proper efforts are not made to prevent independent armed groups from operating freely in Israeli communities—then we may well find ourselves in a serious crisis of governance that will affect the daily lives of all Israelis. The train has already left the station, and now it is critical to ensure that appropriate protections are put in place. This will require honest and brave commitment from the government and the public.

We all still have the right to be protected by our state. On October 7, the Israel Police—men and women; Jews and Arabs—proved that its officers are completely dedicated to defending the state’s citizens. Many of them paid with their lives. The Israel Police should continue to be the apolitical state sovereign body tasked with maintaining public order, and there is certainly a place for expanded, civilian-based security under this framework, including well-trained civilian defense squads overseen by the police. Israel Police may not be perfect, but it is our duty to give it the tools it needs to serve the public in the way we deserve.



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