The southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheva is offering scholarships to students who volunteer with an armed civilian militia, according to the armed group's website, which posted applications for 10,000 shekel scholarships for students who volunteer with the group.
The Sayeret Barel (Hebrew for Barel commandos) militia, established last year as an anti-crime patrol unit, was founded by soon-to-be Otzma Yehudit party Knesset member Almog Cohen, who is seventh on the Religious Zionism list.
Almog Cohen in 2013
Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Mifal HaPais, Israel's national lottery, provides 15 of the largest cities in Israel around 600 scholarships a year with several conditions: The city will add 5,000 shekels from its own sources to the 5,000 shekels Mifal HaPais provides, and the money will be paid directly into the bank accounts of students who completed at least 140 hours of volunteering with local organizations.
Mifal HaPais said it had first gotten wind about the Sayeret Barel milita's involvement from Haaretz, and that local governments do not provide details about the volunteer organizations participating in the program. An official in the municipality said on Tuesday that the display of the city's logo by the militia was not done with its permission, but did confirm that the municipal youth center is the body that bestows the scholarships.
Mifal Hapais said it “was an undertaking of the local governments in Israel, and acts for their benefit and on behalf of the welfare of their residents. Every local government is free to decide how it allocates the scholarships it is entitled to, and this is according to the priorities, its unique needs and out of a deep understanding of the needs of residents.”
Almog Cohen, a former police officer, deleted his social media accounts after he was placed on the Religious Zionism list due to numerous offensive comments. In one, he called Justice Ministry officials tasked with investigating police misconduct "attack dogs of post-Nazism." Additionally, he called for soldiers to execute Palestinians and disregard their commanders, and has posted homophobic statements on several occassions.
In an interview with Channel 14 last October, Cohen said that Sayeret Barel would operate even without the approval of the police. The police's Southern District withdrew its support prior to the militia's founding ceremony, but the Be'er Sheva municipality has continued its close cooperation with the group. The city's mayor, Rubik Danilovich, has been a vocal supporter, delivering a fiery speech during the inaugural ceremony.
Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported that Cohen posted to his Facebook page documentation showing him an apparent partner in the abuse of three residents of the Bedouin city of Rahat, who were questioned by Justice Ministry investigators. As a result of the report, the family asked to relaunch the investigation.
Cohen says that he is no longer active in the organization because of time constraints, and he is not connected to the scholarship initiative. A Sayeret Barel official referred to by Cohen did not respond to Haaretz's inquires.
That militia was named after the Border Policeman Barel Hadaria Shmueli, who was killed on the Gaza border in August 2021. The organizers wrote on their website that the militia's goal is to serve as a "unit of citizen soldiers that will be a power multiplier and aid the security services."
Logos of the partners in the enterprise appear in the banner: The Mifal Hapais national lottery, the Be’er Sheva municipality, the municipal corporation for culture and recreation Kivunim and the youth center it operates, “Start Up”, which transfers the scholarships in practice.