Air Force chief removes reservist pilot for urging refusal over judicial shakeup

Col. Gilad Peled vows to appeal, says he sought to prevent refusal-to-serve; military statement cites ‘inappropriate’ conduct ‘contrary to guidance’ of IAF chief

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

Outgoing commander of the Ramat David Airbase, Col. Gilad Peled, July 26, 2022. (Nevo Levin/Israeli Air Force)
Outgoing commander of the Ramat David Airbase, Col. Gilad Peled, July 26, 2022. (Nevo Levin/Israeli Air Force)

The chief of the Israeli Air Force on Thursday removed from his post a reservist fighter pilot who has been leading calls to refuse to show up for duty over the government’s legislative proposals to radically weaken the judiciary.

The pilot said the decision was unjust, and that he would appeal it.

The move was first reported by Channel 12’s investigative show “Uvda.” The Israel Defense Forces said the reservist officer, Col. Gilad Peled was suspended indefinitely over his “conduct around the current events.”

Peled, the former commander of the Ramat David Airbase, gave interviews with Channel 13 news and the Kan public broadcaster over the past week on reservist concerns over the judicial overhaul.

The suspension of Peled was carried out by IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar after the pair met Wednesday evening regarding “his continued reserve service.”

“At the end of the conversation, the chief of the Air Force informed the officer that in light of his conduct, he would not be able to continue to serve in the reserve army until further notice, since he had acted contrary to the guidance of the chief of the [Air] Force, and in a manner that is inappropriate for the rank and status of the officer,” the IDF said in a statement.

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

Peled can still appeal to IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, before his dismissal becomes permanent.

“The IDF cherishes its reservist service members, and respects their right as citizens to act according to the dictates of their conscience, alongside leaving them outside of any public controversy, in order to maintain the competence of the IDF and the public’s trust in it,” the military added.

Speaking to reporters after the IDF announcement, Bar said Peled “coordinated and synchronized” reservists refusing to show up for duty.

“When I tried to inquire with him twice before the announcement of the suspension, he did not explain to me the broad picture… which was revealed to me through the commanders of the squadrons and units,” Bar said.

“I decided due to a lack of trust to suspend him from reserve service at the moment,” he said. “That’s at the heart of it.”

Israeli Air Force officer Col. Gilad Peled in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

Bar said the decision was not related to his involvement in the anti-overhaul protests, but rather that Peled “took authority into his own hands” by coordinating with officers when to show up for reserve duty or not.

“I did not give him the authority to unite reservists and synchronize their activities as to when they report for duty,” the IAF chief said.

“It disintegrates my well-refined chain of command… I had to stop it,” Bar added.

Speaking to the Haaretz daily after the announcement, Peled denied coordinating the pilots’ refusal to show up for duty. He told the paper there was “no truth” to the claim that he was acting against the orders of the IAF chief.

In an interview with Army Radio, Peled said he intends to appeal the decision and will ask to speak with Bar again. He said that far from encouraging refusal to serve, he attempted to prevent it and that the IAF chief had “made a giant mistake… I hope that his mistake will become clear to him,” he said.

It was the first such dismissal over the judicial overhaul, which has seen a growing number of reservists from numerous units warning 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 or even a dictatorship.

The dismissal of Peled came after 37 of 40 reservist pilots from the IAF’s 69th Squadron said they would boycott one day of training in protest of the judicial overhaul. The key squadron — known as the Hammers — operates the F-15I fighter jets out of the Hatzerim Airbase in southern 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)

On Wednesday, a group of IAF officers warned Halevi that the majority of their fellow active-reserve pilots would cease reporting for duty if the government passes the judicial overhaul. The warning appeared to be the most far-reaching voiced by members of the security forces thus far, as opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul effort expanded deeper into the military’s ranks.

The IDF chief pledged to speak immediately with government representatives as well as in the media about the importance of speaking respectfully about the military reserve members who have chosen to protest the judicial overhaul, amid a series of disparaging comments made recently against them by government ministers and right-wing activists.

Halevi said refusing to report for reserve duty was a “red line” that he would not accept. However, the military chief added that he would “ensure that the tasks the IDF carries out correspond to its values ​​and are carried out legally.”

The latter comment appeared to reference concerns voiced by pilots who met with Bar last week and told him they would refuse to carry out illegal orders, citing as an example a statement by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling for the government to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara. Smotrich apologized for the remark again on Wednesday and said he did not realize it would be interpreted as a command by officers who fear that there will no longer be any checks on the government’s power if the overhaul is passed.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi holds a meeting with reserve soldiers on March 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The reservists meeting Bar last week also assured him that they would continue to do active service but expressed fear that the new hardline government’s conduct and judicial proposals 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.

Military, government and opposition leaders have decried the protests by soldiers, saying the army should be kept separate from politics and warning that mass insubordination would harm national security.

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