ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Pilots also said weighing refusing reserve duty

Elite IDF reservists threaten to stop showing up for duty over judicial overhaul

Over 100 servicepeople in Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division, including several senior officers, say government plans risk ‘erasure of Israeli democracy’

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

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)

Reservist officers and soldiers of the Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division came out strongly against the coalition’s planned judicial overhaul on Friday, warning in an open letter that they would stop showing up for duty should the government move ahead with its plans.

The more than 100 servicepeople who signed the letter join groups of pilots, tankists, submariners, sailors, and other special forces who have penned similar letters in recent weeks.

In the open letter, the reservists called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to halt the proposed judicial legislation immediately and reach a consensus, or risk “the erasure of Israeli democracy.”

“We, the undersigned, have served with great pride in complex key roles for years, on a voluntary basis, in the IDF Special Operations Division, which is one of the most sensitive units in the security system of the State of Israel,” the letter read.

“This is a moment of emergency. If the legislation that aims to turn the judicial system into a political and non-independent branch [of government] continues, i.e. the erasure of Israeli democracy, and if a broad consensus is not reached on the issue, we will not continue to volunteer for reserve service in the Special Operations Division,” the reservists wrote.

“We have served with endless sacrifice this country, which we love so much, but we will not volunteer for reserves in the Special Operations Division when a huge black flag flies over the actions of the government,” the letter read.

“The legislation in question will destroy everything we have served and fought for. We will not let that happen,” it added.

The signatories included lieutenant colonels, colonels, brigadier generals, and a major general, among dozens of junior officers and sergeants.

Much of the Special Operations Division is classified; however, it is known to conduct undercover intelligence-gathering operations deep in enemy territory, such as the botched nighttime operation in the Gaza Strip in November 2018.

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

In a speech Thursday, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi called on reservist protesters to leave the controversy over the judicial overhaul outside of the army.

“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.

Some protesters have already threatened not to show up for reserve duty if the government moves ahead with its overhaul of the judicial system.

The Haaretz daily on Friday said there were “first signs” of reservists weighing refusing to show up for duty, especially among pilots and aircrews in the Israeli Air Force.

“Among the aircrew in the reserves, there is an increasing interest in the possibility of refusing to serve, or of ‘grey refusal’ — avoiding missions or not performing some of them — in protest of the latest political developments,” the report said.

Meanwhile, Israeli television reported Tuesday that top military prosecution officials have warned in recent weeks that the judicial shakeup could expose senior IDF commanders as well as senior political figures to criminal proceedings in international courts.

The Kan public broadcaster said a similar warning was issued Tuesday at a closed meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee by legal counsels to Shin Bet and Mossad, the Military Advocate General and senior Justice Ministry officials.

Senior diplomat Alon Ushpiz, who recently resigned as Foreign Ministry director general, issued a similar warning Thursday.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague does not investigate individuals in countries that have strong justice systems and which are seen as capable of investigating themselves. However, it is feared that a perception of the Israeli system as having been grievously harmed could lead the court to assert jurisdiction and investigate Israeli officials on suspicions of war crimes.

According to the report, the legal officials said they could not point to a specific element in the government’s far-reaching proposals to change the judicial system, but warned of potential operational consequences and said Israeli soldiers could be exposed to international legal actions if the status of the Attorney General’s Office and High Court of Justice are undermined.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, right, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has prioritized the proposals since being sworn in less than 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, includes 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.

Members of Netanyahu’s coalition have also vowed to pass other controversial bills, some of which relate to the military.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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