IAF chief says pilots refusing service over judicial revamp opposition may be booted

Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar reportedly intends to begin ousting reservist pilots who threaten to skip training or service in protest of coalition’s judiciary overhaul bid

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

Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar reportedly intends to begin booting out reservist pilots who refuse to show up for duty in protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, indicating a tougher approach to threats from the most prominent of a wave of reserves soldiers saying they will no longer present themselves for service or training as long at the hardline coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moves ahead with legislation that will dramatically weaken the judiciary system.

The legislation push was temporarily paused last week, after mass protests broke out following Netanyahu’s announced dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant over his public warning about the security implications of the coalition’s proposals and his call for a halt to allow for compromise talks. But the opposition is highly distrustful of the overtures as some coalition members have vowed to soon pick up right where they left off after the Passover Knesset recess and push ahead, starting with a bill that will politicize judicial appointments.

Compromise talks are taking place under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog. Anti-overhaul protesters, who went out in droves for the 13th consecutive week to rally against the government, have been demanding that instead of pausing the legislation drive, the coalition shelve the bills completely.

Gallant has yet to be formally dismissed, but in his televised address on March 25, he cited “tangible danger” to state security and erosion of Israel’s source of strength — the military- amid the growing rift in society and opposition in the ranks.

According to Channel 12 report on Sunday, the IAF’s Bar recently spoke with senior air force commanders to inform them of this new approach and said any new threats from reservist pilots to not report for duty would be met with sanctions and possible removal from operational activity. Haaretz reported that Bar said it would not be possible to participate in operational activities if pilots miss training, citing a source with knowledge of the conversation.

Reservist pilots train frequently and missing multiple sessions could impact competency.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesperson told Haaretz in response that the military “will not address what is said in closed forums,” but that over the past few weeks, “all the commanders in the IDF held talks with their subordinates, in active duty and the reserves, with the aim of strengthening the cohesion of the IDF and maintaining its competence.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last month, 37 out of 40 reservists in the IAF’s 69th Squadron said they would boycott one training session, sparking widespread consternation, and joining a growing list of units in the IDF, including some of the most elite, whose members have threatened to not show up amid the widescale opposition to the government’s plans.

The squadron — known as the Hammers — operates the F-15I fighter jet out of the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel.

Bar then suspended — and quickly returned to service — reservist fighter pilot Col. (res.) Gilad Peled for allegedly leading calls to refuse to show up for duty. Peled had been suspended indefinitely by Bar, a decision he argued was unjust and vowed to appeal.

In a statement at the time, the military said the IAF had been under the “false impression” that Peled was organizing and coordinating refusal to serve among other reservist pilots, and “came to the conclusion that formal conduct must be refined during this complex period.” Peled told Bar that there had been a misunderstanding; that he was in fact against refusal, and was not trying to organize pilots to not show up for duty.

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

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

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.

On Friday, Walla reported that a battalion commander in the Givati Brigade has instructed to call in for clarification reservists who don’t show up for scheduled service in protest against the overhaul and discipline them where relevant. The commander also reportedly ordered the suspension of further call-ups to these reservists until further notice.

So far, a reserve team commander in the brigade was suspended after reportedly refusing to report for reserve duty, pending an interview where a transfer or dismissal will be weighed. Another eight soldiers and an officer have been summoned for questioning

A military spokesperson told Walla that over the past few months, the brigade has carried out successful operational activity in the northern West Bank “during which over 100 percent of the reserve personnel required to meet the standard for operational deployment missions showed up.”

Late last month, brigade reservists were summoned for a one-day training session, of which about 1% did not show in protest, the military said. “A reservist who is called to duty, by order, is required to report for duty according to the set date. Non-attendance is examined according to the individual circumstances of each case,” the military said.

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