Israel’s elite pilots escalate their protests over judicial reform

  • Written by Tom Bateman
  • BBC News, Jerusalem

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photo caption,

The pilots are the last military reservists to be threatened not to serve

Fighter pilots in the Israeli Air Force’s elite squadron have vowed not to attend training, in an unprecedented protest against the government.

Approximately 40 Reserve Airmen from the 69th Squadron refused to join a one-day training exercise this week.

It is seen as an unparalleled political move by some of Israel’s most strategically important reservists.

It is also indicative of growing opposition to the ruling National Coalition’s plans to reform the legal system.

An unnamed pilot told the Ynet news site that the squadron “indicates that we will not be willing to serve a dictatorial regime”.

Meanwhile, national airline El Al said it had found a crew to fly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife to Italy for a planned state visit this week, after media reports its pilots refused to fly the couple as part of the protests.

In another sign of growing anxiety among the Israeli military leadership, 10 former Israeli Air Force chiefs published an open letter calling on Mr Netanyahu to “stop and find a solution” to the crisis, given the level of protest among pilots and aircrews.

“We fear the repercussions of these operations and the grave and tangible danger to the national security of the State of Israel,” the letter said.

It follows last week’s announcement of elite 8200 intelligence unit reservists, who also said they would not be attending to aspects of their reservist duties.

Israel’s reservists are a major component of its military forces, often in front-line roles and, in the case of the Air Force, regularly participating in active combat operations.

Netanyahu responded over the weekend, tweeting a black and white photo of his military ID from when he was conscripted in 1967.

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“When called for reserve duty, we always come. We are one nation,” he wrote.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant also called on reservists to come to duty.

He said, “Any call for rejection harms the work of the Israeli army and its ability to carry out its tasks.”

Anti-government protests have continued to grow since Netanyahu returned to power at the end of last year, spearheading the most right-wing and nationalist coalition in Israel’s history and promising sweeping changes to Israel’s legal system.

They include new laws that would give the government complete control over the appointment of judges and ultimately strip the Supreme Court of crucial powers to overturn legislation.

Most legal scholars say the reforms will effectively eliminate the independence of the judiciary, while opposition figures describe the proposals as an attempted “coup d’├ętat” by the prime minister and his coalition.

Netanyahu is also on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, and opponents claim legal reforms could help shield him from conviction.

The proposals sparked some of the largest anti-government demonstrations in Israel’s history, with an estimated 150,000 people taking to the streets of Tel Aviv and tens of thousands in protests elsewhere on Saturday.

During last week’s demonstrations, security forces used stun grenades and water cannons against demonstrators, after the far-right National Security Minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, vowed to crack down on “anarchists” who blocked the roads.

Netanyahu says the reforms are meant to prevent the courts from overreaching their powers and that the Israeli public voted for them in the last elections.

However, human rights groups and Palestinian officials have long dismissed Israeli investigations into its forces’ conduct as exculpatory.

Boycotts threatened by reservists in Israel are not uncommon, but the scale and seniority of the participants is now unprecedented.

The protest from the pilots adds to statements made by reservists in almost every combat or intelligence unit in recent weeks threatening not to serve if the government goes ahead with the controversial changes.

The army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevy, reportedly spoke with Mr. Netanyahu, warning him that the action could harm the army’s operational capabilities.

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