‘We’re angry’: Israel tensions mount as army reservists threaten to refuse duty

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  July 29, 2023

Conflict over Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul judiciary is leading to new levels of civil disobedience – and potential security risks.

Over his many years of service, Zur Allon, 46, a reservist lieutenant colonel in Israel’s artillery special forces, never imagined a day when he would refuse to report for duty.

“Half of my company was blown up in Lebanon. I have given many years of my life defending this country,” said Allon, one of the leaders of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a pressure group of more than 60,000 Israel Defence Forces (IDF) reservists, established earlier this year in protest against the government’s proposed overhaul of the judiciary.

“That’s why we are so angry,” he said. “The government is breaking a very simple contract we have, to protect a Jewish and democratic Israel.”

The IDF was envisioned by the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, as “the people’s army”: an apolitical melting pot that would bring together Israelis from diverse ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, and help build a sense of social cohesion. Over the years that vision has been diluted, and the inequalities and divisions in Israeli society are reflected in the makeup of its armed forces.

Arab citizens of Israel are not conscripted, and there is a longstanding legal battle over whether the ultra-Orthodox community should be exempted from the draft, but military service is still a defining part of the national ethos. Perhaps it is unsurprising that both sides of the debate over the proposals for the judicial system so frequently invoke military metaphors.

Israel’s relatively small standing army relies heavily on 465,000 reservists – even in peacetime, they can be called up for as many as 60 days a year. Groups from critically important units, such as pilots, have threatened not to serve in the past over issues such as disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the second Lebanon war. But the country has never seen civil disobedience on this level before.

Reservists have been a strong voice in Israel’s protest movement since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right and religious coalition announced sweeping judicial changes shortly after taking office in December. Proponents of the overhaul believe it is needed to counter a perceived leftwing bias in the unelected court’s decisions, while critics say it will lead to democratic backsliding, such as that seen in Hungary and Turkey.

There are particular concerns in the military that the proposals for the judiciary could expose officers 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, although Palestinians and rights groups have long said that the very low number of indictments in Israeli investigations suggests current practice is not fit for purpose.

This month, more than 10,000 reservists signed a public letter saying they would ask to be released from service if the coalition went ahead on the first major element of the legislation – which was passed 64-0 in the Knesset on Monday, after every member of the government voted for it and the opposition boycotted the vote in protest.

Now, the question is whether the reservists will follow through on that promise, a collective action that could severely affect the IDF’s operational readiness.

“There’s no other option other than to refuse service. Up to now, the demonstrations have failed: the government went ahead regardless. We will have to take harsher measures,” said Yair Golan, a reservist major general and former deputy economy minister of the leftwing Meretz party.

“People know how to make priorities. What happens if an external threat comes along, that’s hard to predict. But right now, the first priority is to keep Israel a democratic state and fight this government.”

Several hundred reservists have already notified their commanders that they no longer wish to be called up for service. At the same time, there were reports last week that some reservists had volunteered for extra duty, in order to alleviate the effects of the refusals.

In public statements over the last few months, the IDF has tried to downplay the crisis. But last Monday night, after the vote passed, there was a public statement that commanders were worried that “if reservists do not show up for reserve duty in the long term, there will be damage to the military’s readiness”.

On Friday, the Hebrew-language media was dominated by news that the IDF’s intelligence directorate had warned Netanyahu no fewer than four times before the bill passed that Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah see a “historic opportunity” in Israel’s domestic crisis, citing a “major erosion in basic deterrence”.

It is unclear whether the prime minister and his cabinet have fully grasped the unfolding crisis in the IDF’s ranks. Netanyahu, a former captain in an elite special forces unit, has been particularly critical of the opposition coming from the military, pointing out that, in a democracy, the military takes orders from the government, not the other way round.

The Defence minister, Yoav Gallant – seen as the most forthright critic of the overhaul on the government’s benches, in part because of his role as intermediary between the armed forces and politicians – squandered any goodwill towards him from the protest movement by voting in line with the rest of the coalition on Monday.

Gallant did not respond to a request for comment about the escalating breakdown in relations between military forces and the government.

Netanyahu himself, for so long a domineering figure in politics but now plagued by corruption charges, at times appears weak, content to let his coalition partners set the agenda.

The military is not the prime minister’s only headache: potential international credit down-ratings, a tech industry exodus, widespread strikes and legal wrangling over the overhaul’s future all loom before the Knesset reconvenes in October.

Israel’s protest movement also has some soul searching to do, Golan said.

“This is the greatest crisis for Israeli society since the Yom Kippur war [October War],” he said, referring to the launch of a surprise attack on Israel by its Arab neighbours in 1973.

“I have no doubt that Israel will not be the same after this, and that is the challenge. It’s not just about protests: we need to build something positive out of this and work towards a better future.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian