Elite engineering, cyber warfare reservists join opposition to judicial overhaul

‘Division and hatred will grow’: Groups send letters to security brass warning they may stop showing up for reserve duty if government goes through with plans to weaken courts

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)
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)

A few hundred more reservists on Friday came out against the government’s efforts to overhaul the judicial system, joining thousands of others in warning they may stop showing up for military duty if the proposals become law.

In a letter to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, over 130 reserve soldiers in the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit expressed their concern over the measures being advanced by the government, saying they would change “the character of the country we served and grew up in.”

“We believe that if the legislative process continues without dialogue or consent, the rift in the nation, the division and hatred will grow to the point of becoming a real danger to the country’s future,” they wrote. “The reforms, if they pass in the Knesset, will make it difficult for us to continue fulfilling our role in the reserves and harm our ability to continue defending the State of Israel.”

The soldiers urged coalition and opposition leaders to immediately meet in an effort to hammer out a compromise reform package, “before the moral and social fabric of the country is broken apart.”

Separately, a group of some 150 soldiers from cyber warfare units similarly warned they would stop volunteering for the reserves if the overhaul is approved, in a letter sent to the chiefs of the military, Mossad and Shin Bet.

“Our service requires the development and activation of capabilities with the potential for misuse. The legitimacy to use advanced cyber capabilities exists only because Israel is a democratic-liberal country, in which there is a strong and independent judicial system that allows for balance between the branches [of government],” they were quoted as writing by Israeli media.

“A governing system without judicial review is liable to use the cyber capabilities that we develop in an immoral way that contradicts democratic values,” they added.

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against the government’s controversial justice reform bill in Tel Aviv on March 1, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The letters came a day after reservists in two other elite units — the Israeli Air Force’s helicopter-borne search and rescue unit and the undercover Duvdevan infantry unit — threatened to no longer serve in the reserves, joining groups of pilots, armored corps, submariners, sailors and other special forces who have penned similar letters in recent weeks.

Gallant has said that reservists’ threats to refuse to serve if the government’s judicial overhaul is passed harm national security.

In a recent meeting with the IDF’s top brass, military chief Herzi Halevi said he was aware of the controversy over the overhaul plans, but will not allow it to affect the army’s “ability to carry out its missions.”

However, according to a report Sunday, Halevi is concerned that growing voices among high-ranking reservists against showing up for duty will harm operational activity and military drills, as well as affect young Israelis’ long-term motivation to join the army.

During a speech last week, Halevi called on reservist protesters to leave the army out of the fray.

“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 told graduates of the IDF officers school.

IDF chief Herzi Halevi speaks at an IDF officers’ graduation ceremony at the Bahad 1 base in southern Israel, February 23, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has prioritized the judicial proposals since being sworn in around two months ago, and they are being spearheaded by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

The sweeping reforms, which are being pushed through the Knesset in recent weeks include the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges including to the High Court; all but eliminating the High Court’s ability to review and strike down legislation; and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.

Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as weekly protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies.

Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism, saying that the proposals would strengthen rather than weaken democracy and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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