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Israel's military reservists criticize judicial reform

Tania Krämer
March 23, 2023

Military reservists are threatening to stop reporting for duty if Israel goes ahead with its judicial reforms. The unprecedented military protests underscore the growing opposition to the legal overhaul.

A back view of protesters wearing the Israeli flag drapped over their shoulders
Military reservists are traditionally neutral but are now demonstrating in ever-greater numbersImage: Oded Balilty/AP/picture alliance

Former air force pilot Guy Poran gulps down a coffee and quickly eats a homemade sandwich before his next interview. It's a rare break for Poran, who is among the leaders of a group of about 1,300 Israeli ex-pilots, some still active reservists, known as Forum 555. He's been in high demand since several groups of defense force reservists have raised their voices in protest against Israel's judicial reforms.

"It's been busy days," he says. Poran has spent the past few weeks giving interviews explaining why the reservists he represents are critical of the legal overhaul proposed by the far-right coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

None of the reservists have yet to refuse an order, Poran says. But the air force volunteers have made it clear that if the coalition passes the legislation, the reservists wouldn't be able to continue serving in the defense force.

"We're volunteers. If this country isn't democratic anymore ... we're just not going to volunteer anymore," he tells DW.

The proposed legislation curtails the power of the judiciary and gives parliament the power to appoint judges. In the past, the Supreme Court has on rare occasions canceled laws enacted by parliament. Controversially, a clause in the new law would enable the Knesset to override such a decision by the Supreme Court with a simple majority. 

Critics are concerned that this will erode democratic norms and concentrate power in the government.

Men wearing red shirts holding Iraeli flags walk at a protests
Israeli military reservists in Tel Aviv protest against government plans to overhaul the judicial systemImage: Oded Balilty/AP/picture alliance

Military tradition of neutrality

Huge nationwide rallies against the reforms have been ongoing for almost three months. But it's only recently that opposition to the bill has spread within military ranks.

Two weeks ago, reserve pilots from the country's elite Squadron 69 threatened to stop taking part in training in protest of the controversial overhaul. 

In a letter circulated in the media on Sunday, at least 450 reservists from military special forces, as well as from cyber units including the Mossad and the Shin Bet intelligence agencies, said they would refuse call-ups if the legislation is voted in.

Israeli media reported on Tuesday that another reservist group calling itself Brothers in Arms said it would begin to ask its members to sign a 'refusal to serve' declaration should the government go ahead with the reforms.

If the overhaul bills are passed, "we and tens of thousands more with us will stop volunteering for reserve duty," Ron Scherf, one of the founders of Brothers in Arms, was quoted as saying in the Times of Israel.

Israeli men and women are usually conscripted into the military for two to three years. Afterward, some continue to enlist for reserve duties well into their forties and later become volunteers. In some units, reservists take on essential roles because of their experience and skills. 

Israeli soldiers hold weapons and riot shields as the sky behind them lights up in flames
The Israeli defence force relies on its reservists to meet its needsImage: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

All the air force squadrons are dependent on reserve pilots, says Guy Poran, and if a large number of those reserve pilots fall away after this legislation passes, "there is simply no air force."

That's because the air force only has a small group of permanent pilots, made up of the "young guys" who come out of flight school, he explains.

"All the pilots with a lot of experience of years are on reserve. They come every week for one day of training for years ... and the small amount of pilots that are permanently serving can't do the missions the air force is required to do."

Refusal to serve in the military is typically a taboo topic and further underlines how the government's judicial reforms have deeply divided the country.

Turmoil in security establishment

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed criticism of his government's plans, describing the judicial reform as a restoration of "balance between the branches of government."

He has also sharply criticized the reservists and urged the military chief of staff and other heads of security services to "vigorously fight against refusal to serve."

"There is no place for refusal to serve in the public discourse," said Netanyahu at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Benjamin Netanyahu confers with lawmakers in the Knesset
Benjamin Netanyahu, center right, confers with lawmakers in the KnessetImage: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo/picture alliance

This was echoed by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant who warned that the refusal is "dangerous" and could "harm the ability" of Israel's Defense Force to carry out its tasks.

Israel's military is currently engaged in almost daily raids in Palestinian towns and villages in the occupied West Bank.

'Softened' version

Netanyahu's government has made a slight concession, in that it has announced a softened timeline for the legislation. Under the new proposal, voting on most of the proposed changes would be postponed until the parliament's summer session, which begins on April 30.

However, it would still seek to pass legislation shaking up how judges are appointed during the current Knesset session, which ends on April 2.

Opponents rejected this new proposal dubbing it as the "salami method" as only parts of the legislation would be put on hold.

In practice, if passed, the legislation would still give the ruling coalition control over the appointment of two Supreme Court justices and possibly the Supreme Court president, as well.

Earlier protests by reservists

It's not the first time that reservists have penned letters or staged protests in times of government crisis. This also happened, for example, during the Lebanon War in 1982, explains Danny Orbach, a military historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"In most cases, it came from the left. It came from reservists who were specifically left-wing, pro-peace, who believed that Israel's policies were immoral or illegal," says Orbach.

This time is different, though. Now it's also the political center who are demonstrating.

"The people who belong to the center have an increasing feeling that they carry the entire state on their shoulders. They pay more taxes, they support the economy, and they support entire groups of the population, especially the ultra-Orthodox," says Orbach.

"They serve in the army more than others," he says, referring to the fact that in general, ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, men don't have to serve the defense forces. "They staff the elite units, they volunteer for reserve duty."

With opposition to the judicial reforms also now emerging from within the security establishment, the real test will be once the legislation is eventually passed, he says. 

"If the Supreme Court will overrule some of the legislation, and the government will refuse to obey the Supreme Court, then the chiefs of the security services, army, police, Shin Bet, Mossad and others will be in very unenviable dilemma, whether they obey the Supreme Court or the government."

Israelis protest proposed judicial overhaul

Edited by: Kate Hairsine