ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Gallant, Halevi brief PM on fallout of reservists protest

‘Won’t serve dictatorship’: Reservists to suspend volunteer duty over legal shakeup

Members of Brothers in Arms protest group to publicly sign document outside IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv as government advances curtailment of judicial review

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

Israeli military reservists, members of the Brothers in Arms protest group, block the entrance to the IDF's headquarters in Tel Aviv as they protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israeli military reservists, members of the Brothers in Arms protest group, block the entrance to the IDF's headquarters in Tel Aviv as they protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

An unknown number of reservists on Wednesday afternoon were slated to publicly sign a document outside the military’s headquarters announcing the suspension of their volunteer reserve duty, claiming that the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary were turning the country into a “dictatorship.”

The announcement was the latest to send shockwaves through the Israel Defense Forces, which is struggling to stem a growing flood of reserves troops dropping out of volunteer duty to protest the overhaul.

In an announcement, the Brothers in Arms protest group — representing thousands of reservists — said they were responding to the government advancing legislation aimed at preventing courts from reviewing decisions by the government and ministers based on their “reasonableness.”

“We will not serve in a dictatorship… The bill to annul the reasonableness test that is planned to be voted on in the coming days tramples the values ​​of the Declaration of Independence and runs counter to the spirit of the IDF, which brought us up, and on which the state was founded,” Brothers in Arms said.

Brothers in Arms said they had “a clear message” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi: “You are breaking the contract with us. The heart hurts and the soul is suffering, but you left us with no choice. Just like throughout our years in the reserves, now too we will show up to defend the country with our souls and bodies.”

The reservists were set to gather at 5 p.m. at the Sarona Market shopping area in Tel Aviv, and march to the IDF headquarters’ Shaul Gate, near the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where they were expected to sign the document at 6 p.m.

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)

The government aims to pass a bill restricting use of the so-called “reasonableness” judicial test by the end of the month as it pushes ahead with its controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.

In recent weeks, protests against the judicial overhaul have roiled the IDF, with reservists from dozens of units joining in threats to cease their voluntary service. According to a list published Sunday, nearly 4,000 reservists have signed letters threatening to not show up for voluntary duty in protest of the planned changes to the judiciary.

On Tuesday night, more than 160 reservists filling key roles across the Israeli Air Force said they were suspending their voluntary reserve duty, effective immediately.

On Wednesday, some 300 reservists in the IDF Medical Corps and another two senior IAF officers announced similar moves.

Defense officials and politicians on both sides of the aisle have warned that the mass refusals could make Israel more vulnerable to outside threats.

On Tuesday, military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said calls by reservists to refuse to serve in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system cause harm to the IDF.

Halevi on Wednesday paid a visit to the IAF’s Tel Nof airbase to speak with commanders, following Tuesday’s letter by reservists.

On Sunday, following an emergency meeting, Gallant and Halevi reportedly agreed to relay the concerns over the potential negative impact on military readiness to Netanyahu.

The Defense Ministry confirmed Wednesday that Gallant and Halevi met with Netanyahu this week amid the increasing threats by reservists, in order to brief the prime minister on the “security situation assessment and the competence of the IDF.” The ministry did not elaborate further on the meeting, or when it took place.

Unlike most reservists who are called up for duty with a formal order from the IDF, pilots and other special forces are expected to train and carry out missions more frequently and in a voluntary manner due to the nature of their positions.

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.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) meets with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 16, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

The reservists — who are a key part of the army’s routine activities, including in top units — are 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.

The calls to refuse to show up for reserve duty started earlier this year, as the judicial overhaul was first announced and as it advanced, growing in number even as they were condemned by senior politicians in both the opposition and the coalition. The threats again increased in recent weeks as the government resumed moving ahead in the Knesset with some elements of the plan, after largely pausing the legislation in March following pressure by reservists on Gallant.

Gallant in late March publicly warned that the rift over the overhaul was causing divides in the military that posed a tangible threat to Israeli security. In response to that warning, Netanyahu ordered Gallant’s firing, a move that sparked intensified national protests, in turn leading Netanyahu to temporarily suspend the legislation for three months and withdraw Gallant’s dismissal.

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