Hundreds of Israeli reservists vow to refuse service if judicial overhaul passes
PHOTO CAPTION: An Israeli soldier aims a weapon during clashes with Palestinians, in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank January 26, 2023. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
By Emily Rose
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Hundreds of Israeli reservists marched in Tel Aviv on Wednesday threatening to refuse their volunteer service if the government presses ahead with its controversial plan to curb the power of the Supreme Court.
The drive by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist-religious coalition to strip the court of some of its review powers has triggered mass protests across Israel and stirred deep concern among allies, including the United States.
Protests have intensified as ratification nears, while one cabinet minister said the government could rethink its polarising drive to overhaul the judiciary if protests escalate.
Protesting reservists from some of the military's most elite formations including combat pilots and Special Forces units have attracted particular attention, stirring alarm from defence chiefs worried that the protests risk compromising national security.
The Israeli military declined to comment.
The government and its supporters say the proposed changes are needed to rein in what they see as activist judges encroaching into the political sphere.
But for those opposed, the proposals undermine Israel's democratic values and break the "unwritten contract" it has with its armed forces, said Ron Scherf, 51, a lieutenant colonel in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit who has been in the reserves for 23 years and was among those protesting.
"Every soldier who endangers his life and goes on missions does that for a state that is defined as Jewish and democratic," he told Reuters. "But if you take one of those out, if the country stops being Jewish or democratic, it's not longer a country that can be protected," he said.
Protest organizers shared with Reuters 300 letters from military doctors who have said they would not serve and shared a letter signed by 750 reservists in special operations saying they won't report for duty if the legislation passes.
While Reuters could not independently verify the signatures, the organizers say they have verified each name signed.
One 30-year-old captain in the reserves, who declined to give his name ahead of the protest, said he had a list of more than 1,000 signatures of reservists who pledged to suspend their volunteer service.
The conscript military draws on reserves in wartime and requires that they undergo regular training.
Soldiers who refuse to report for volunteer service are not in violation of military or civil law and thus cannot be punished. Some reservists have made clear that if Israel entered a state of emergency, they would report for emergency call-ups.
Israeli Military Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, during an air force base visit on Wednesday, called the volunteer system critical, adding: "The calls for non-reporting hurt."
(Reporting by Emily RoseEditing by Alexandra Hudson, James Mackenzie, Susan Heavey and Alex Richardson)