ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 150

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IDF to study implications of protest by 'best of our people'

1,142 Air Force reservists to end volunteer duty in protest of judicial overhaul

In unprecedented letter, hundreds of pilots, drone operators, air traffic control officers and others urge coalition to ‘reach broad agreements’ or they will suspend their service

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

File: Israeli Air Force pilots walk to their plane during the 'Blue Flag' international exercise at the Ovda airbase in southern Israel on October 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
File: Israeli Air Force pilots walk to their plane during the 'Blue Flag' international exercise at the Ovda airbase in southern Israel on October 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

More than 1,100 Israeli Air Force reservists, including more than 400 pilots, issued a letter on Friday announcing that they will suspend their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

The announcement — unprecedented in scale and in terms of the centrality to the IDF of those signed onto the letter — was the latest to send shockwaves through the Israel Defense Forces, which is struggling to stem a growing flood of reserve troops dropping out of volunteer duty to protest the overhaul, as defense officials warned the phenomenon could affect national preparedness.

In the (Hebrew) letter addressed to Knesset members, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, the 1,142 active duty reservists said the government’s controversial plans would lead them to halt their volunteer duty, indicating that the threat would take effect if the “reasonability” bill becomes law next week as scheduled.

The reservists called on the government to “reach broad agreements” with regard to the judicial overhaul, and “strengthen the trust in the judicial system by all parts of society, and preserve its independence.”

Most Israelis who complete their mandatory military national service are required to attend annual reserve duty, but those who’ve served in special units — including pilots — are expected to volunteer to continue carrying out the same duties while in the reserves, a commitment they usually take upon themselves. Due to the nature of their positions, special forces troops and pilots in reserves show up more frequently for training and missions.

Many reservists 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.

IAF F-15D fighter jets simulate a dogfight during an independence day airshow, in Tel Aviv on April 26, 2023 (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“Legislation that affects the Jewish or democratic character of the State of Israel must be carried out through negotiations and broad public agreement,” the 1,142 reservists said.

“Legislation that allows the government to act in an extremely unreasonable manner will harm the security of the State of Israel, will cause a loss of trust and a violation of my consent to continue risking my life, and will lead, with deep sorrow and no choice, to suspending my volunteer reserve duty,” they added.

Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari responded to the letter, saying the IDF was looking into the signatories and would “examine the meanings accordingly.”

“The security of the citizens of the State of Israel rests on the standing and reserve servicemembers, these are the best of our people and we are full of appreciation for their contribution,” Hagari said in a statement.

“The IDF recently received a letter signed by over 1,100 initials of reservists in the Air Force. The IDF is checking the details and will examine the meanings accordingly,” he continued.

IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari speaks to media near the Gaza border, May 10, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“The IDF continuously monitors the situation, examines the readiness, and reflects the implications to the political echelon,” Hagari said.

He said the IDF’s position on the threats to refuse to show up for duty has not changed. “Not reporting for reserve duty harms the IDF and the security of the state,” he said, adding that in recent days “damage to the cohesion [of the military] is already evident, the repair of which will take a long time.”

Several of the signatories who spoke to Channel 12 news anonymously said they were “broken-hearted” to take the step but that Israel was facing “an unprecedented crisis of trust in the leadership, dragging us into the abyss.”

“We’ve got to fight for a country that our children will want to live in,” they said, opposing “a leadership with unbridled power and an extreme agenda.”

“We lived through all the governments and all the crises and we never went for such a move,” they noted.

Israeli Air Force pilots throw their caps in the air during a graduation ceremony at the Hatzerim air force base, December 28, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Some blamed IDF chief Halevi, who they said “should have banged his fist on the table” to implore the government to stop. “We expect him to do so now.”

Another pilot told Army Radio that “we understand the security implications, but we also understand the enormous risks of a regime change.”

The letter was signed by 235 fighter pilots, 98 transport pilots, 89 helicopter pilots, 173 drone operators, 124 air traffic control officers, 167 IAF headquarters staff, 91 training staff, 80 members of the elite search and rescue Unit 669, and 85 members of the Shaldag commando unit.

On Thursday, Maj. Gen. Bar said the IAF was continuing to operate as usual despite calls by reservists to not show up for volunteer duty in protest of the overhaul, but added that the current discourse was causing great damage that will take “years to fix.”

“The harsh statements that have been made toward the army and the Air Force, standing and reserves, in recent days, have no place in society and they have caused great damage to the cohesion of the force. I strongly condemn them,” he said.

Israeli Air Force chief Tomer Bar speaks at an event in honor of the 75th anniversary of the IAF’s first-ever strike mission 75 years ago, at the Ad Halom Park near Ashdod, May 29, 2023. (Flash90)

Protests against the judicial overhaul have roiled the IDF for months, with hundreds of military reservists having announced in recent days they will no longer volunteer to carry out their specialized duties — among them air force pilots — if the government advances its plans.

The threats have ramped up as the government pushes a bill barring judges from the use of the so-called “reasonableness” test for government and ministerial decisions, part of the coalition’s controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Also Thursday, the IDF slammed a video circulated online, including by ministers, depicting IAF pilots refusing to help ground troops attacked by enemy forces due to the formers’ perceived support for the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

In a statement, military spokesman Hagari said the staged video aimed to cause “internal incitement” within the IDF and should be condemned.

Israeli military reservists sign a declaration of refusal to report for duty to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, July 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Meanwhile, defense officials and politicians on both sides of the aisle have warned that the mass refusals could make Israel more vulnerable to outside threats, as the readiness of the military, particularly the IAF, would be negatively impacted.

Reservists, especially members of the Israeli Air Force, are a key part of the army’s routine activities. Defense officials have said pilots could harm their competency by taking breaks from their frequent training exercises, and it would take a significant amount of time to restore their flying abilities.

The IDF appears to be facing an unprecedented threat, with thousands of reservists calling to end their volunteer reserve duty. During the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the military anticipated a large wave of insubordination by members of the standing army, although few ended up actually refusing to carry out the evacuation orders.

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.

It is unclear what measures would be taken against reservists who do not show up for voluntary duty. The IDF said it would handle each case individually, including possible suspension, dismissal, or jail sentences.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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