Protesting air force pilots agree to hold talks on base, but won’t train

Members of fighter jet squadron — most of whom said they would refuse to join exercise in protest of government — will hold dialogue with commanders

File: An IAF F-15I fighter jet of the 69th squadron takes off from Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, during a pilots graduation ceremony, June 22, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
File: An IAF F-15I fighter jet of the 69th squadron takes off from Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, during a pilots graduation ceremony, June 22, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Reservist members of an Israel Air Force fighter jet squadron said Tuesday that they will show up this week to their base as ordered, but only for conversations with their commanders, after sparking widespread consternation by announcing they would not attend training in protest of the government.

The pilots are the most prominent of a wave of reserves soldiers saying they will refuse to show up for service or training to express their objections to the coalition’s judicial overhaul plan as well as a recent settler rampage through a  West Bank Palestinian town.

“We are responding to the call of our commanders and will report to the unit tomorrow for a dialogue with the soldiers. We have full confidence in our commanders, and we will continue to serve the Jewish and democratic State of Israel as long as it is required,” the pilots said in a statement.

Out of the 40 reservists in the IAF’s 69th Squadron, 37 said on Sunday they were boycotting the Wednesday session. The squadron — known as the Hammers — operates the F-15I fighter jet out of the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel.

The pilots had said in their initial statement on Sunday they would “devote our time to discourse and thinking for the sake of democracy and the unity of the people,” instead of showing up for the exercise.

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

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 4, 2023. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Over the last two weeks, a growing list of units in the Israel Defense Forces, including some of the most elite, have seen members threaten to not show up amid widescale opposition to the government’s plans that critics say will harm Israel’s democracy, economy, and security.

The protest has been met with a petition signed by around 6,000 IDF reservists affirming their commitment to defend the country.

Also, Tuesday, the wife of Israeli airman Ron Arad, who has been missing since 1986, threw her support behind the fighter pilots.

In a Facebook post, Tami Arad wrote, “Dear fighters of the 69th, I am proud of you for the symbolic decision.

“You took the lead, as you do in the operational activity that you do quietly. As someone who has personally experienced the risks you take, it is clear to me beyond any doubt that you cannot act any differently.”

Arad, an Israeli Air Force navigator, was captured after bailing out of his jet over Lebanon in 1986 and was last heard from in 1988. He was last known to be in the custody of Lebanese terror groups and is widely presumed to be dead.

Missing Israeli Air Force officer Ron Arad, photographed by Amal militants in Lebanon in 1987. (Wikipedia)

Military and government leaders have decried the protests by the soldiers, saying the army should be kept free of politics and warning that mass insubordination will harm national security.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat on Tuesday praised the reservists for having “showed national responsibility and did not cross red lines.”

“We only have one air force, one army, and one democratic Jewish state in the entire world. Even when there are disputes in the nation, it is our duty to protect our army at all costs. Those who support the [judicial] reform, we need to strive for broad discussions and agreements among the people of Israel,” Barkat tweeted.

On Monday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the reservists’ protest “threatens the foundations of our existence, and therefore it has no place in our ranks.”

Senior opposition figures Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot, and Avigdor Liberman also have spoken out against reservists’ calls to boycott their duties, though said they understand the sentiments driving their move. Gantz and Eisenkot are both former IDF chiefs of staff.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi on Monday wrote on social media that those who refuse to show up for IDF reserve duty in protest of the judicial plan can “go to hell,” attracting protesters outside his home on Tuesday, and backlash from both opposition and coalition members.

Screen capture from video of Communication Minister Shlomo Karhi, center, speaking with protesters outside his home in Moshav Zimrat, March 7, 2023. (Channel 12. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

In 2007, the 69th squadron carried out a strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor in a mission known to much of the world as Operation Orchard, and in the IDF as Outside the Box. It has also been involved in carrying out hundreds of strikes against Iranian entrenchment in Syria over the past decade, receiving a citation from the military chief in 2018 over the operations.

The reservists notified IAF chief Tomer Bar and the commander of the squadron of their intention to not show up for training this week but said they would report for duty if required for operational missions.

On Friday, dozens of senior pilots in the Israeli Air Force held an unprecedented meeting with Bar in which they reportedly expressed major concerns about their continued service in the reserves, after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s call for the state to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara, along with the government’s plan to radically restrict the power of the country’s judiciary.

According to Channel 12, the pilots, reservists who continue to do active service, expressed fear that the new hardline government’s conduct and judicial proposals could expose them to prosecution by global bodies such as the International Criminal Court.

Israel has long argued against such probes, pointing to the strength and independence of its own judiciary, which is responsible for investigating incidents of wrongdoing by Israeli forces. But critics of the government’s legal overhaul warn that efforts to restrict the High Court of Justice’s power will rob the country of legitimacy in the international arena.

IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi was slated to meet with pilots, officers, and other troops on Tuesday and Wednesday over concerns that reserve soldiers protesting the government’s judicial overhaul will refuse to show up for service or training.

Halevi has warned Netanyahu that the protests’ entry into the military could harm its operational capabilities.

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