ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Ex-commander of elite navy unit suspends reserve service

As overhaul advances, 4,000 reservists in key roles threaten to end volunteer duty

Hundreds of pilots, commandos, cyberwarfare experts included in growing list of military reserve members protesting against changes to judicial system

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

Members of the Brothers in Arms protest group demonstrate against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the home of Speaker of the Knesset Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Members of the Brothers in Arms protest group demonstrate against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the home of Speaker of the Knesset Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv, on June 6, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Nearly 4,000 reservist soldiers in key positions have signed letters saying they would refuse to show up for volunteer reserve duty in protest of plans by the government to implement far-reaching changes to the judiciary.

In recent weeks, protests against the judicial overhaul have rippled through the Israel Defense Forces, with reservists from dozens of units joining in threats to end their voluntary service, according to a list compiled by Channel 12 news on Sunday.

At least 200 aircraft pilots and navigators, 90 headquarters staff, 50 air traffic control operators and 40 drone operators have signed such letters, according to the report. The number of pilots and other Israeli Air Force (IAF) staff refusing to serve due to the overhaul was expected to rise further.

Some 400 reservists of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit handed their commander a letter on Sunday, saying they would not show up for voluntary reserve duty if the government moves ahead with the judicial overhaul.

“We all hope that the destructive legislation, as it is today, will stop. In hopes that we will meet in the next reserve [duty], after the sword has been removed from the neck of democracy,” the reservist commandos wrote in the letter published by the Ynet news site.

On Friday, several reserve pilots reportedly told IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar that they will stop reporting for training this week. According to the Kan public broadcaster, at this stage, the refusal was not affecting the force’s readiness.

Reservist pilots met last week with Bar, warning him of potential mass refusals to volunteer for service if the government advances its controversial push to overhaul the judiciary. The group of pilots, who represented hundreds of others, told Bar that “we swore to serve the kingdom, not the king.”

Illustrative: IDF soldiers of Palsar 401, the reconnaissance company of the Armored Corps, during training in the Golan Heights on April 11, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Last week, some 420 members of the elite Shayetet 13 naval commando unit penned a similar letter to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who previously commanded the unit.

According to Channel 12, at least 350 military doctors in reserves have so far issued letters saying they were halting or threatening to halt their voluntary service due to the judicial overhaul.

Also on Sunday, another former commander of Shayetet 13, Captain Nevo Erez, 57, notified the military that he was suspending his volunteer reserve duty, the Haaretz daily reported. Captain Erez also served in the Mossad spy agency until last year.

In recent weeks, at least 950 members of the Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division and members of various cyberwarfare units announced their intention to end their volunteer reserve duty over the judicial overhaul.

Illustrative: A soldier from the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate works at a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to Channel 12’s list, more than 350 other Military Intelligence reservists; some 600 reservists of the Paratroopers’ Brigade’s Reconnaissance unit; 120 reservists of an elite Artillery Corps unit; over 110 reservists of the Shimshon and Duvdevan infantry battalions; and 80 reservists of the elite Egoz unit, Golani Brigade’s Reconnaissance unit, and Alpine reserve unit, all signed similar letters threatening to refuse to show up for volunteer reserve duty.

Unlike most reservists who are called up for duty with a formal order from the IDF, pilots and other special forces are expected to train and carry out missions more frequently and in a voluntary manner due to the nature of their positions.

The military has said that it would discipline or potentially dismiss active-duty soldiers who refuse to show up for duty when ordered to, but stressed that no action would be taken against reservists who only threaten not to show up.

It is unclear what measures would be taken against reservists who do not show up for voluntary duty.

Reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have been warning in recent months they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

Illustrative: A graduation ceremony for soldiers who completed the IAF Flight Course, at the Hatzerim Air Base in southern Israel, June 29, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

The calls to refuse to show up for reserve duty started roiling the military earlier this year as the judicial overhaul was first announced and as it advanced, growing in number even as they were condemned by senior politicians in both the opposition and the coalition. The threats again increased in recent weeks as the government resumed moving ahead in the Knesset with some elements of the plan, after largely pausing the legislation in March following pressure by reservists on Defense Minister Gallant.

Gallant in late March publicly warned that the rift over the overhaul was causing divides in the military that posed a tangible threat to Israeli security. In response to that warning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Gallant’s firing, a move that sparked intensified national protests, in turn leading Netanyahu to temporarily suspend the legislation for three months and withdraw Gallant’s dismissal.

The coalition is currently advancing a key bill from the package — legislation aimed at preventing courts from invalidating or even discussing government and ministers’ decisions based on their “reasonableness.” It aims to pass the bill into law by month’s end.

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