'If dictatorship laws enacted, a people's army cannot exist'

Protesting reservists threaten mass refusal to serve over judiciary shakeup

Organizers of group representing reserve soldiers say they are beginning to sign thousands on declaration to not show up for duty if overhaul bills are passed

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

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)
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)

Leaders of a protest group representing reserve soldiers and officers said on Tuesday that they would be escalating their actions against the government’s plans to radically curtail the power of the judiciary.

The group, known as Brothers in Arms, said they would 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.

“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.

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 Defense Minister Yoav 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.”

Lt. Col. (res.) Ron Scherf (center) and members of the ‘Brothers in Arms’ reservist protest group hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“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.

Earlier Tuesday, Army Radio reported that top-ranking commanders in the Israel Defense Forces 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin 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 parliament, 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.

A letter published by drone operators on Tuesday called on the government to halt the overhaul.

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

In a speech Monday to officers including IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, Defense Minister 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, which lawmakers plan to pass by 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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