Israeli military reservists refuse to train in protest at far-right government

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  March 7, 2023

Growing numbers including from elite air force squadron say they are unwilling to serve ‘dictatorial regime’.

Growing numbers of Israel’s military reservists, including members of its most important air force squadron, are refusing to attend for service, an unprecedented step that comes as part of the protest movement against the country’s new far-right government.

In an announcement on Sunday, all but three of the 40 reservist pilots in Israel’s elite 69 Squadron said they would not take part in a training exercise later this week, and instead participate in widespread public protests, claiming they were not prepared to serve a “dictatorial regime”.

The F-15I pilots are a strategically crucial squadron capable of flying long-range missions, raising immediate questions about the Israel Defence Forces’ (IDF) operational competence. Security officials are reportedly also worried about refusals to obey orders and insubordination within the serving military’s ranks as opposition to plans by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to limit the judiciary’s powers increases across swathes of Israeli society.

Israel’s army and air force chiefs of staff were due to meet reserve pilots – who regularly serve in operational roles – on Tuesday following the threat not to report for training. Meanwhile, El Al, the national airline, was forced to clarify that a flight scheduled to carry Netanyahu to Italy for a state visit later this week would go ahead as planned after reports crew members had refused to staff the flight.

“It is inconceivable for me that I would ever do something like this. I was in the air force for 31 years: 16 of those were under Netanyahu, even though I never voted for him,” said Omer Denk, a 51-year-old F-15 fighter jet navigator who retired from active service in 2022.

“This isn’t about politics or policy. This is about a crisis in trust in a leadership that wants to destroy Israel as a liberal democracy.”

Among the proposals advanced by the most radical members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition are bills that would allow politicians to appoint all supreme court judges, and an override clause that would mean a simple parliamentary majority could quash the court’s rulings. The changes would probably help the prime minister avoid prosecution in his corruption trial, in which he denies all charges.

Proponents of the changes believe they are needed to counter a perceived leftwing bias in the court’s decisions, while critics say they will lead to democratic backsliding such as that seen in Hungary and Turkey.

The planned overhaul has led to the biggest protest movement in Israel’s history, with hundreds of thousands of people marching in several cities over the last two months. The protests turned violent last week, with police deploying stun grenades and water cannon.

Sectors that would never normally get involved in politics, such as economists, Israel’s booming hi-tech sector, and former high-ranking military and intelligence leaders, have all voiced opposition to the judicial plans.

“When the government calls us anarchists and agitators it doesn’t work … the people out on the street, some of us carry the state on our shoulders. I don’t think the leaders understand how bad the crisis is,” Denk said.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the Jewish holiday of Purim on Monday night, Netanyahu called the reservists’ vow not to report for duty unacceptable and an “existential” threat. Over the weekend, he posted a photograph of his military ID to social media, along with the caption: “When we’re called for reserve duty, we always turn up. We are one nation.”

Reservists are an important part of the Israeli military, often called up for as many as 60 days a year even in peacetime. While groups from critical units such as pilots and intelligence operatives have threatened not to serve in the past over issues such as disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the second Lebanon war, there have never been boycotts on this scale before.

Former military officials have voiced concerns that the proposed judicial changes could expose them to international prosecution. Israel is not a member of the international criminal court, arguing that its own legal system adequately investigates accusations of wrongdoing by the armed forces. Palestinians and rights groups have long said that the very low number of indictments in Israeli investigations amounts to little more than whitewashing of the occupation.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian