A senior Israeli intelligence officer has spent 28 years as an army reservist, sometimes leaving his family at a moment’s notice to go on duty overseeing classified projects out of love for his country. Now, he’s had a change of heart.
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“I’ve told the army that if the judicial reform passes (in parliament) I won’t continue to come,” Colonel N told Reuters, asking not to be further identified. “I understand that I will face the consequences, but I think it's the right thing to do.”
Mass protests have gripped Israel over a planned overhaul of the judiciary which would give the hard-right nationalist government decisive sway in picking judges and limit the Supreme Court’s power to strike down laws. Critics say it would weaken Israeli democracy and give unchecked powers to any government.
In a letter circulated to the Israeli media on Sunday, hundreds of protesters describing themselves as volunteer reservists said they were now refusing call-ups in response to the planned legislation.
The increasing numbers of reservists declaring they may refuse to train or serve underlines the deep splits opened up by the judicial overhaul plans in Israel, where the military holds a hallowed place in society.
Most Israelis are conscripted into the military for 2-3 years, and some continue as reservists into middle age. While reservists have helped Israel prevail in a string of wars, the army has relied recently on standing forces.
But reservists are seen as especially valuable to the armed forces given their maturity and accrued skills. They can be punished for ignoring a call-up, though this rarely happens.
Government leaders have said refusing military service is a red line, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on March 6 it would “threaten the existential foundation” of Israel.
Israel faces enemy entities on several fronts. There have been periodic flare-ups of fighting with the Palestinian Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip. Violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has surged over the past year as Israel has stepped up raids in response to a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks.
But some reserve officers say that if the government can henceforth disregard judicial oversight, they may be forced into an invidious choice between obeying orders to take part in a military operation and heeding any legal ruling against it.
Colonel N said he had been in many situations when state officials favored an air strike or ground raid on an alleged Palestinian militant target but the judiciary blocked it ongrounds that the security threat was not proven. Civilians have often been killed or injured in such strikes.
He worries that such judicial oversight would in future be ignored and “(I) don’t want to be in the room when that happens.” He added: “A reform that makes it possible to ignore legal advice, and selects submissive judges, will result in permanent violations of the law.”
Experts warn the Israeli military could be weakened by reservists rejecting call-ups.
“This definitely inflicts huge damage on the capability and capacity of the Israeli forces,” Israel Ziv, a former head of army operations, told Reuters. He said he expected most reservists would serve in an emergency but even missing military exercises could erode the military’s “ability to function.”
Israeli air force reservists are required to fly as often as once a week to maintain operational readiness yet are designated as volunteers, with no legal obligation to attend training.
Colonel E, an F-16 fighter pilot, said that serving in the air force wasn’t just a job but rather woven into his entire patriotic identity and personal life, yet he could not fly if judicial oversight was vitiated.
“There’s nothing I want more than to fly (but this is) much bigger than what I do and bigger than what my squadron does - it’s about the identity of our country,” Colonel E said.
“This impacts me in the cockpit. I need to know that a Jewish and democratic state will be fulfilled completely and without that I cannot fly,” he told Reuters.
Israeli military law requires officers and soldiers to refuse an order that courts declare unlawful, and military experts warn the judicial overhaul could place those in the highest ranks in difficult situations.
“This is what we call a ‘Black Flag’,” Ziv said, saying that officers would be obliged to refuse an order for a military strike if, for example, they believed it derived purely from political rather than security calculations.
Israeli soldiers could become more exposed to possible prosecution by international courts if the judiciary is weakened and leaves them effectively immune from domestic prosecution over war crimes allegations, Ziv added.
However, not all protesting reservists agree that refusing to serve is merited at this stage.
“We still aren’t calling for people to stop coming to reserves because we still aren’t living in a dictatorship,” said a spokesman for Brothers in Arms, a reservists protest movement.
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