Poll finds 2 in 3 Israelis fear civil war as tensions rise

Elite commando reservists said to refuse volunteer duty as overhaul protest widens

Organizers of 170-strong Sayeret Matkal protest tell commander they aim to add another 80 to their ranks, as army prepares for possibility of protests snowballing in coming days

Illustrative: Soldiers from the IDF Commando Brigade take part in a large-scale training exercise in November 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: IDF commandos take part in a training exercise in November 2018 (Israel Defense Forces)

Some 170 active reservists in the army’s top special forces unit say they will no longer volunteer for service, as protests against far-reaching changes to the judiciary continue to ripple through the Israel Defense Forces.

With fears already rampant that mass refusals could harm the military’s ability to tackle threats, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said in comments to reserves troops that were leaked Friday that refusal to attend training sessions would harm the military’s preparedness.

While officials have expressed alarm over the spreading phenomenon, some in the government have sought to downplay the protests. A report Friday indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told confidants Israel doesn’t need every air force squadron — referring to pilots who have been the most prominent reservists to publicly refuse to volunteer.

But a letter presented to the commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit recently announced that starting next week, 170 active reservists in the unit would halt their service in protest of the government’s decision to advance its judicial overhaul legislation, according to a Channel 12 news report Friday.

״We are aware of the potential harm that could be caused by our cessation to volunteer for reserve duty in the unit, but where things currently stand we have no other course of action available to stop the destruction that the planned laws will cause to all of us,” Channel 12 cited the letter as saying.

The network said the organizers are aiming to have at least another 80 Sayeret Matkal active reservists sign onto the letter in the coming days, potentially dealing a significant blow to the military’s preparedness for operational duty.

The unit, which is largely shrouded in secrecy, is primarily responsible for intelligence-gathering missions behind enemy lines and has also been tasked with counterterrorism and hostage rescue operations, including the legendary July 1976 raid on Uganda’s Entebbe airport led by Yoni Netanyahu, the prime minister’s brother, who was killed in the operation. Benjamin Netanyahu himself also served in the unit.

Its exploits have earned Sayeret Matkal a mythical status with the public. Many of the unit’s graduates have gone on to prominent roles, including former prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Ehud Barak.

Meanwhile, as national tensions rise over the clash between the government and its opponents, a Channel 12 poll Friday showed a full 67% of Israelis fear civil war. Another 29% said they did not, while 4% said they didn’t know.

Among those who voted for Netanyahu’s bloc in the Knesset, 56% said they feared such an eventuality while 41% said they didn’t. In the opposite camp, the numbers were at 85% and 14% respectively.

Also Friday, several reserve pilots told Air Force Commander Tomer Bar that they will stop reporting for training starting next week in protest of the judicial overhaul, according to Kan news.

Kan also reported that 106 Air Force reservists serving in non-combat posts had informed the military they would stop showing up for volunteer duty.

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.

The coalition has vowed to press ahead with the changes to the judiciary despite the protests, which have also included daily rallies outside politicians’ homes and weekly mass actions meant to shut the country down and pile pressure on the government to back off. Critics say the overhaul will weaken the courts and remove checks on government power, putting the nation’s democratic character at risk. Proponents say the changes are needed to clamp down on an overly activist and politically biased judiciary.

In late March, a similar wave of refusals led Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to call for the overhaul to be halted in order to hold negotiations with the opposition aimed at reaching a compromise on judicial reform. Netanyahu’s subsequent attempt to fire Gallant sparked protests on a scale rarely seen in Israel, leading him to walk back the sacking and agree to freeze the legislation for compromise talks.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant delivers a video message at an Israel Air Force base on May 23, 2023. (The Ministry of Defense)

Compromise negotiations fell apart last month though, leading the coalition to begin advancing the shakeup unilaterally once more.

According to Channel 12 news, the military is weighing whether to again pressure the government in order to prevent damage to its operational capacity. The claim was not attributed to a source.

Channel 13 reported Friday that starting next week, the military will closely follow each and every announcement by an Air Force reservist that they are stopping their service, to maintain a clear picture of the force’s ability to carry out its duties.

Any such case will be referred to higher-ups in the Air Force who will decide how to act, and whether to take punitive action.

Halevi, the army’s top general, has refrained from weighing in on the phenomenon of protesting reservists in recent days. But on Friday, a leak revealed part of a message he gave to a group of reservists during a training exercise this week: “If we don’t train today, our competence will be compromised and when you’ll be called on to act, you’ll be less prepared.”

Until the development within Sayeret Matkal, most of the latest protests within the army had been taking place in the Air Force.

F-35i fighter jets are seen at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, in an undated handout photo. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Kan report did not say how many pilots were involved in the boycott but noted that some of the protesting pilots are high-ranking officers. Several of the pilots serve as flight training instructors.

According to Hebrew media reports, reservist pilots met Monday with Bar, warning him of potential mass refusals to volunteer for service if the government advances its controversial effort to curb the judiciary.

The group of pilots, who represented hundreds of others, told Bar that “we swore to serve the kingdom, not the king,” according to reports.

However, according to a report by journalist Amit Segal in his weekly Yedioth Ahronoth column Friday, Netanyahu does not plan to halt judicial overhaul legislation based on reservists refusing to report for duty, reportedly telling confidants that Israel can survive “without a few squadrons.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin as the Knesset deliberates a bill to cancel the judiciary’s review powers over the ‘reasonableness’ of government decisions, in Jerusalem on July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Ending the legislation has one meaning, and that is that there is no point in having an executive authority, as it can’t do anything,” Netanyahu was quoted saying.

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.

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.

Alumni of special intelligence units said in a statement Thursday that Netanyahu “understands that he, and only he, is dismantling the country and the defense establishment. Don’t talk to us about ‘state security’ when you are rushing toward a Russian or Iranian-style dictatorship.”

A separate group of alumni of the Intelligence Branch said that Netanyahu’s recordings “show he understands the damage to security as a result of government actions. Responsibility for state security is in his hands.”

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