ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Some air force members vow to step in if others refuse

IDF fears more pilots will refuse to serve over judicial overhaul — report

Top security officials, including IDF chief and defense minister, express deep concern over growing military protest movement to Netanyahu, TV report says

IDF reservists and activists protest against the government's judicial overhaul, outside the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, March 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
IDF reservists and activists protest against the government's judicial overhaul, outside the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem, March 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Military officials are concerned that hundreds more elite service members in the reserves will refuse to serve in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul, joining others who have already said they will halt their service over the legislation, if the coalition goes through with its plans to pass into law the first part of its legislative effort to curtail the judiciary, according to a Tuesday report.

Israel Defense Forces officials estimate that hundreds of air force pilots and supporting aircrew members, as well as some career officers in the ground forces, will join the growing military protest movement, Channel 13 reported.

The spreading opposition in the military ranks has sparked deep concerns among top security officials, including IDF chief Herzi Halevi and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who have both expressed their fears to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent meetings, the report said.

The warning came after the leaders of a protest group representing reserve soldiers and officers said Tuesday that they will begin to sign reservists on to a declaration of refusal to serve, which would be implemented should the government move ahead with the judicial overhaul.

The announcement by the group, known as Brothers in Arms, marked an escalation in the reservists’ opposition to the government’s plans to rein in the judiciary, an effort that opponents say threatens Israel’s democracy.

“We have been protesting in the streets for 11 weeks. An executive branch with unlimited power is a dictatorship. We are afraid of it. If the laws of the dictatorship are enacted, a people’s army cannot exist. A people’s army only exists in a democracy,” said Lt. Col. (res.) Ron Scherf, one of the founders of Brothers in Arms.

Members of the ‘Brothers in Arms’ reservist protest group hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Scherf, who served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, said at a press conference that if the overhaul bills are passed, “we and tens of thousands more with us will stop volunteering for reserve duty.”

“The army is disintegrating before your eyes,” he said, addressing Gallant. “We expect you to stand up and say that you will not vote for the laws. This is the basic thing we expect, this is the minimum.”

According to Scherf, the group has been preventing reservists from refusing to show up for duty, but now the government’s moves are “fast approaching a red line.”

“Today we will start actively signing on all the reserve volunteers. The responsibility is not on us, but on the government. It is in their hands to stop this terrible schism,” he added.

Some service members have pushed back against the movement, however. Also Tuesday, 50 pilots and aircrew members wrote a letter to security brass offering to return to service if they are needed in the place of protesters who refuse.

“We’re opposed to refusals and ready to immediately return to operational service,” said the pilots, who recently completed their operational service, according to Channel 12. “We are committed to answering the call and returning to active reserve service to protect the State of Israel.”

File: Israeli reserve soldiers, veterans and activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, on February 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier Tuesday, Army Radio reported that top-ranking commanders in the IDF had voiced concern that a growing trend of reservist personnel refusing to serve in protest of the government’s planned judicial revamp could impair the armed forces’ operational capabilities within a month.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on the majority coalition, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges. There have been weekly mass protests for over two months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists, business leaders and more.

Increasingly, reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which they charge the country will become under the government’s plan.

Military brass has insisted that the armed services must remain outside any political brawl, but numerous reports have indicated the phenomenon is only growing.

In addition, soldiers have expressed concern that a lack of international trust in the independence of Israel’s judiciary could expose them to prosecution in international tribunals over actions they were ordered to carry out during service.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi seen during a tour on near the border with Lebanon, northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In a speech Monday to officers including Halevi, Gallant denounced the wave of insubordination in the military, saying it threatened national security.

“The phenomenon of widespread insubordination may harm the IDF’s ability to carry out its missions,” he warned.

However, Gallant was also said to have warned Netanyahu that he could resign if the judicial legislative blitz is not slowed down.

The coalition has now delayed some of the legislation until after the Passover holiday, but is moving ahead quickly with a bill to assert political control over the appointment of judges.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is set on Wednesday to begin the voting process in committee to approve the first pillar of the judicial overhaul, giving governing coalitions extensive control over all judicial appointments, for its final votes in the Knesset plenum next week.

While supporters say the judicial overhaul will rebalance power away from an overly activist court, critics argue the moves will remove essential checks on executive and legislative power, putting democracy in peril.

The reservist protesters intend to demonstrate on Wednesday near Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, where Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf will be attending a housing conference.

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