Israel’s soldiers join protests against Netanyahu’s judicial reform

Israel’s soldiers join protests against Netanyahu’s judicial reform


JERUSALEM — Eshel Kleinhaus, a former commando in Israel’s Sayeret Shaldag special ops military unit, has battled Hezbollah gunmen in Lebanon and Palestinian militants in the northern West Bank.

But nothing prepared him for his current mission: to block Israel’s new far-right government from fundamentally overhauling its judiciary, a move that he says will slide the country toward autocracy.

“This struggle is much, much harder,” he said, “because, in the end, no one is going home.”

Why Israel’s planned overhaul of the judiciary is tearing the country apart

Kleinhaus was one of the 100 active, reserve and veteran soldiers of Israel’s most elite combat units waving billowing Israeli flags Thursday morning outside the Jerusalem offices of Kohelet Policy Forum. The far-right organization is funded by two U.S. billionaires and is the main architect of the contentious government plan to weaken the Supreme Court.

Old army buddies who had survived the trenches embraced. Loudspeakers blared slogans of solidarity. Protesters piled garbage bags filled with fake money and signs reading “Kohelet is closed” at the main door to the institute’s office.

Police arrested seven participants, including a commander in charge of soldier selection in the prestigious Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit — the same one in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once served.

The morning event kicked off nationwide demonstrations, and hundreds of thousands are expected to flood the streets and paralyze traffic. Police are on high alert throughout the country, and thousands are deployed near the international airport, where protesters aim to disrupt Netanyahu’s planned trip to Rome, one of his first international visits since assuming office in late December.

Netanyahu will travel by helicopter to the airport to avoid the demonstrators and, along with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, will meet U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin inside the airport, rather than at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv as originally planned.

Eran Gal, 44, a reservist from the Sayeret Shaldag attending the Kohelet protest, said Thursday’s “Day of Opposition” was one of the only tools of resistance left to compel the Netanyahu government to back down.

But he and many others here have also committed to implementing another tool that they would have never considered before: refusing to serve in the military reserves on which Israel’s relatively tiny army relies.

“The army is not sacrosanct,” said Gal, tears beginning to well up in his eyes. “It is the home that we are fighting for, that is what’s sacrosanct. That is the thing that we are willing to go out and be killed, and to kill for, which is not a simple thing.”

The threat of military manpower loss comes at a time of spiraling tensions in the nearby West Bank and Gaza, and throughout the region. It has spurred rare public statements from military officials who once strictly adhered to a policy of nonintervention in Israeli politics. But they are now in damage control, meeting throughout the week with groups of reservists, with a message that they will fight to retain their trust.

“The reservists are an inseparable part of the [Israel Defense Forces],” its chief of staff, Herzi Halevy, told dozens of reserve commanders from the Israeli Ground Forces, the Military Intelligence Directorate, the Israeli Air Force and the Israeli Navy on Wednesday in a statement made public to a group of journalists. “Certain cracks can form that will be irreparable in the future.”

Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul aims to weaken the Supreme Court, grant virtually unbridled power to the ruling coalition and potentially extricate the prime minister from a prison sentence as a result of his ongoing corruption trial. The process has antagonized and divided a central pillar of Israeli society — the military — for which most Israelis serve as part of their mandatory service at the age of 18 and as reservists for decades after.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the basic elements of the judicial overhaul were borrowed from Hungary and Poland, two countries that have embraced illiberalism with similar changes. But Israel is also different because it is a country at war, “and the fact that most Israelis are so interconnected with the army … makes it more difficult for the government to fully control the population.”

“There’s a feeling among Israelis that the government expects us to donate our time and risk our lives during the next conflict with our neighbors,” she added, “and this gives them the moral ability to say things that couldn’t be said in Hungary and Poland.”

Israeli police violently crack down on protest over judicial overhaul

As the bills to restructure the courts and the protests to halt the legislative blitz have gained momentum, so too has the military refusenik movement, a once taboo and minor phenomenon that military officials and average citizens say may have already caused damage to Israel and its ability to defend itself against its external enemies.

The first real alarm was sounded on Wednesday, when 37 out of 40 reserve pilots from the Air Force’s elite 69th fighter squadron refused to participate in a scheduled combat training. Hundreds more, including members of Israel’s elite 8200 intelligence unit, medical personnel, and other fighters have vowed to similarly refuse to show up for reserve duty.

A new petition addressed to Halevy, which aims to reach 100,000 signatures, says the decision not to show up for reserves was taken after “listening to our conscience, and after a thorough examination and many different aspects.”

Halevy warned Netanyahu that the refusenik movement could spread throughout the army, and that, “already, this could harm the IDF’s operational capacity,” according to a leak reported in Israeli media.

Ophir Bear, 51, who served as a combat pilot for 30 years said the government’s attempt to weaken the Supreme Court will ultimately weaken the soldiers.

On many precarious missions, including militant targets that were located among civilian populations, “the judiciary was always there — to moderate us, to ensure that we answer the criteria required by international standards, that we do not carry out war crimes,” he said. “Losing that is the central risk.”

The second related risk, he said, would be that the absence of the Supreme Court — which advises officers on international law and investigates military activities — could make soldiers subject to the International Criminal Court, in The Hague, which may move to fill the void.

Bear will join two other former military leaders to travel to the United States next week, where they will meet with members of the Jewish community and members of Congress with hopes of recruiting support for their fight, which they said in a letter to members of Congress involves “extreme and immediate risks to the economy, our national security, and regional stability.”

In response to the growing refusenik wave, Shlomo Karhi, minister of communications from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said: “Israel doesn’t need you, and you can go to hell.” Netanyahu’s son Yair has called the protesters “terrorists.”

Last week, Netanyahu compared the nearly 200,000 Israelis who flooded the streets of Tel Aviv with the hundreds of settlers who embarked on a vengeful rampage against Huwara, a Palestinian town, earlier that week, torching cars, businesses and homes, including many with children inside, and attacking residents in revenge for a fatal Palestinian shooting earlier that same day.

“We won’t accept violence in Huwara, and we won’t accept violence in Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said. Days later, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also supervises security in the occupied West Bank, said “Huwara should be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it.”

Yoav Rosenberg, who served in the Israeli military for 25 years, including as the director of the elite Talpiot recruit training program, said Smotrich’s statement was “a gift” because it showed that Israel’s highest ranking ministers — with extensive influence over the army — support war crimes.

“This is not about law,” he said. “It’s about changing the rules of the game.”

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