37 of 40 reserve pilots in key fighter squadron refuse to train over judicial shakeup

Most in 69th Squadron – which operates F-15I jets, struck Syria’s nuclear reactor – won’t show up to train Wed. in protest of gov’t moves, but will report for operational missions

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

File: An IAF F-15I fighter jet of the 69th squadron takes off from Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, during a pilots graduation ceremony, June 22, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
File: An IAF F-15I fighter jet of the 69th squadron takes off from Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, during a pilots graduation ceremony, June 22, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Nearly all reservist members of an Israeli Air Force fighter jet squadron on Sunday said they would not show up to one of their planned training sessions later this week, in protest of the government’s plan to radically restrict the power of the country’s judiciary.

Out of the 40 reservists in the IAF’s 69th Squadron, 37 said they were boycotting the Wednesday exercises. Their announcement was first published by the Haaretz daily.

The squadron — known as the Hammers — operates the F-15I fighter jets out of the Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel.

In 2007, the squadron carried out a strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor, in a mission known to much of the world as Operation Orchard, and in the IDF as Outside the Box. It has also been involved in carrying out hundreds of strikes against Iranian entrenchment in Syria over the past decade, receiving a citation from the military chief in 2018 over the operations.

The reservists notified IAF chief Tomer Bar and the commander of the squadron of their intention to not show up for training this week, but said they would report for duty if required for operational missions.

Reservist pilots train frequently and missing multiple sessions could impact competency.

“On Wednesday, March 8, we will devote our time to discourse and thinking for the sake of democracy and the unity of the people, and therefore we will not report to reserve duty on this day, with the exception of operational activity. During the rest of the week, we will report [for duty] as planned,” the reservists said in the letter, quoted by Channel 12 news.

Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, the new chief of the Israeli Air Force, at a ceremony on April 4, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Friday, dozens of senior pilots held an unprecedented meeting with IAF chief Bar in which they reportedly expressed major concerns about their continued service in the reserves.

According to Channel 12, the pilots, reservists who continue to do active service, expressed fear that the new hardline government’s conduct could expose them to prosecution by global bodies such as the International Criminal Court.

Israel has long argued against such probes, pointing to the strength and independence of its own judiciary, which is responsible for investigating incidents of wrongdoing by Israeli forces. But critics of the government’s legal overhaul warn that efforts to restrict the High Court of Justice’s power will rob the country of legitimacy in the international arena.

Some 50 pilots participated in the Friday meeting, which followed a growing number of reservists from numerous units who have warned they will not serve if the coalition proceeds with its plans to shackle the justice system, which opponents say will leave Israel a weakened democracy and even a dictatorship.

Later on Friday, Bar penned a letter to all IAF reserve members that was leaked to the media in which he wrote that he expects them to continue to report for duty. He clarified that the IDF and the IAF would operate “according to the moral standards and according to the values and spirit of the IDF — without any change.”

“My friends, you are the volunteers for long-term active reserve service. You’re committed, dedicated and willing to sacrifice due to the realization of the heavy task on your shoulders. Our shared responsibility is to maintain the ability of the Air Force, to meet its tasks and to maintain its cohesion and competence,” Bar wrote.

“I am aware of and attentive to the difficulties and challenges we all face these days,” he added, without going into specifics.

“I respect the doubts [you might be having]. However, my expectation as IAF commander, like the expectation of the commanders alongside me, is that you will continue to report to your units for duty; that you will continue to serve and fulfill your commitment to your unit, to your subordinates and to your commanders, to the State of Israel, to its security and the protection of its citizens. You [must] show commitment and responsibility for the cohesion of the ranks, the soldiers and the brotherhood of fighters. There is no substitute for you all.”

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against plans by the government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 4, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

He noted that reserve fighters have come under criticism in recent days, ostensibly referencing the pushback voiced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its supporters to the thousands of IDF reservists joining anti-government demonstrations.

Bar said he would not allow anyone to drag protesting reservists’ names through the mud.

“I will not lend a hand to those drawing your image in an unfair way. I am committed to you,” he said.

In a statement on Friday, the IDF said that it was “conducting an ongoing situational assessment and command dialogue in view of the recent events.

IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi directed the members of the General Staff Forum to hold a command dialogue, each commander with his own unit. He emphasized that he is aware of the public discourse and the controversy but will not allow harm to the IDF’s ability to carry out operations and maintain the security of the state.

In a speech Thursday, Halevi called on reservist protesters to leave the army out of the controversy over the judicial overhaul.

“Two reservists can stand on both sides of the dispute… They will come to reserve duty, put on their uniforms, leave the controversy outside and go on a mission side by side, shoulder to shoulder,” Halevi said at a cadets graduation ceremony at the IDF officers school in southern Israel, known as Bahad 1.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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