HomeTop StoriesHundreds of elite Israeli reservists say they are joining judicial protests

Hundreds of elite Israeli reservists say they are joining judicial protests

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A group of Israelis who describe themselves as reservists in elite military and intelligence units said they would not show up for some duties from Sunday, sparking escalating protests against the far-right government’s planned judicial overhaul.

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which has a Knesset majority, say they want bills limiting Supreme Court authorities enshrined in law on April 2.

The plan has raised concerns about Israel’s democratic health at home and abroad. As ratification approaches, demonstrations have gained momentum, the shekel has fallen and fears have been raised by national security veterans who usually shy away from public disclosure.

In a letter sent to the Israeli media, 450 demonstrators describe themselves as volunteer reservists of the special military forces and another 200 as volunteer reservist offensive cyber-operators, including from the intelligence agencies Mossad and Shin Bet, that they are now refusing calls.

Reuters was unable to verify the identity of the signatories, and the secrecy surrounding the units they said they belonged to also made it difficult to assess the protest’s potential impact.

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“We have no contract with a dictator. We would be happy to volunteer if democracy is safeguarded,” the letter said.

The military declined to comment. Mossad and Shin Bet representatives did not immediately respond to Reuters questions.

Netanyahu calls the judicial overhaul a restoration of balance between the branches of government. Critics see a gamble by the prime minister – who is on trial on corruption charges he denies – to subordinate the courts to the executive.

On Sunday, before the final voting sessions in the plenum, a Knesset review committee was due to discuss a bill that would give the coalition greater control over bench appointments.

That, critics say, could fuel corruption and jeopardize the independence of the judiciary, key to Israel’s economic strength and defense against attempts to isolate it internationally.

Netanyahu has condemned the protests reaching the military ranks as an attempt to undermine an institution meant to be above politics. Such doubts have been expressed by some opposition leaders, while others say an authoritarian bent in government would call into question the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčnational duty.

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“If a country is on the brink of dictatorship, we are likely to see a collapse of the security services,” former Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman told Channel 12 TV. “It’s extremely terrifying.”

A man who described himself as a military intelligence captain who took part in Sunday’s reservist protest told Kan radio that he and other signatories were considered volunteers in part because their time commitment exceeded normal reserve quotas.

Indicating that the protest would be suspended in the event of a wartime mandatory call-up, he said: “We are not calling for orders to be refused. We are calling for the voluntary service to be stopped.”

Most Israelis are conscripted into the army between two and three years. Some continue to do reserve jobs into middle age. While reservists helped Israel triumph in previous wars, more recently it has relied on regular forces.

But some units view reservists as particularly valuable given their maturity and accumulated skills. An Air Force pilot who took part in the protests told Channel 12 TV that as many as 60% of crews sent on bombing missions in Syria are volunteer reservists.

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(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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