Hundreds of elite Israeli reservists say they are joining court protests

JERUSALEM, March 19 (Reuters) – A group of Israelis describing themselves as reservists in elite army and intelligence units said they would not report for certain duties from Sunday, stepping up protests against the judicial overhaul planned by the far-right government.

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which holds a majority in the Knesset, say they want bills that would limit the Supreme Court’s authority to be enshrined in law by April 2.

The plan has raised concerns about Israel’s democratic health at home and abroad. As ratification approached, protests grew, the shekel fell and fears were raised by national security veterans who are generally reluctant to expose themselves to the public.

In a letter circulated to Israeli media, 450 protesters describing themselves as volunteer military special forces reservists and 200 others as volunteer reservist offensive cyber operators, including Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies, said they now refused calls.

Reuters could not verify the identities of the signatories, and the secrecy surrounding the units they said they belonged to also made it difficult to assess the potential impact of the protest.

“We have no contract with a dictator. We would be happy to volunteer when democracy is saved,” the letter said.

The military declined to comment. Mossad and Shin Bet officials did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters.

Netanyahu calls the judicial overhaul a restoration of balance between the branches of government. Critics see a ploy by the prime minister – who is on trial on corruption charges he denies – to subordinate the courts to the executive.

On Sunday, a Knesset review committee was due to discuss, ahead of the final plenum voting sessions, a bill that would give the coalition more control over judicial appointments.

This, critics say, could foster corruption and jeopardize judicial independence, key to Israel’s economic strength and defenses against attempts to isolate it internationally.

Netanyahu condemned the scope of the protests among military ranks as an attempt to overthrow an institution that is supposed to be above politics. Such apprehensions have been voiced by some opposition leaders, while others say an authoritarian tilt in government would challenge the idea of ​​national duty.

“When a country is on the threshold of dictatorship, we probably see a collapse of security agencies,” former Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman told Channel 12 TV. “It’s extraordinarily terrifying.”

A man who describes himself as a military intelligence captain attending Sunday’s reservist protest told Kan radio that he and other signatories were considered volunteers in part because their time commitments exceeded normal quotas for reservists.

Noting that the protest would be suspended in the event of a mandatory call in wartime, he said: “We are not calling to refuse orders. We are calling for a stop to volunteering.”

Most Israelis are conscripted into the army for two to three years. Some continue to do reserve duties until middle age. While reservists have helped Israel win in previous wars, more recently it has relied on regular forces.

But some units see reservists as especially valuable given their maturity and acquired skills. An Air Force pilot taking part in the protests told Channel 12 TV that up to 60 percent of aircrew sent for bombing sorties in Syria are volunteer reservists.

(This story has been reclassified to add words deleted from paragraph 2)

Written by Dan Williams Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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