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 West Bank.
“This struggle is much, much harder,” he said, “because, in the end, no one is going home.”
Kleinhaus was one of the 100 active, reserve and veteran soldiers of Israel’s most elite combat units waving Israeli flags Thursday morning outside the Jerusalem offices of the Kohelet Policy Forum, the far-right organization that is the main architect of the contentious government plan to weaken the Supreme Court.
Old army buddies embraced. Loudspeakers blared slogans of solidarity. Protesters piled garbage bags filled with fake money and signs reading “Kohelet is closed” at the office’s main doors.
Police arrested seven participants, including a commander in charge of soldier selection for the prestigious Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit — the same one Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once served in.
The morning event kicked off another day of nationwide demonstrations, as tens of thousands flooded the streets and paralyzed traffic in Tel Aviv. Thousands of police were deployed near the international airport, where protesters aimed to disrupt Netanyahu’s trip to Rome, one of his first international visits since assuming office in late December.
Netanyahu was forced to travel by helicopter to the airport to avoid the demonstrators and to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin inside the airport, rather than at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv as originally planned.
Austin’s visit came at a time of dual crises for Netanyahu, who faces swelling protests over his plans to radically restructure the courts and escalating violence across the West Bank. Thursday morning, at least three Palestinian militants were killed in a shootout with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Jenin, bringing the Palestinian death toll to at least 74 since the start of the year. Fourteen Israelis have been killed by Palestinians over the same period.
Late Thursday, three Israelis were shot and wounded in central Tel Aviv by a Palestinian gunman, Israeli police said. Officers shot and killed the attacker at the scene. Hamas, the Islamic militant militant group that rules Gaza, claimed responsibility.
During Austin’s hour-long meeting with Netanyahu, Austin “urged immediate steps to de-escalate violence and work towards a just and lasting peace,” according to a Pentagon readout.
In a televised statement from the airport, Netanyahu said nothing about the deteriorating situation in the West Bank and accused the opposition of attempting “to plunge us into anarchy” for refusing to negotiate over the judicial overhaul.
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 are also prepared to take another step they never would have considered before: refusing to serve in the military reserve on which Israel’s relatively tiny army relies.
“The army is not sacrosanct,” said Gal, tears welling 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 losing military personnel at a time of spiraling violence has spurred rare public statements from military officials who once strictly adhered to a policy of nonintervention in Israeli politics. They are now in damage-control mode, meeting with groups of reservists this week in an effort 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. “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 prosecution in his ongoing corruption trial. The process has sparked unprecedented resistance from within the military, which is a central pillar of Israeli society — most Israelis are mandated to serve 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. But “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.”
On Wednesday, 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 also vowed to resist reserve duty.
A new petition addressed to Halevy, which aims to reach 100,000 signatures, says the decision not to show up for the reserve was taken after “listening to our conscience.”
Halevy warned Netanyahu that the “refusenik” movement could spread throughout the army and that “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 courts could ultimately weaken the armed forces.
On many precarious missions, including against 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.”
He also worries that if the Supreme Court — which advises officers on international law and investigates military activities — is viewed as illegitimate, it could make soldiers subject to the International Criminal Court, in The Hague, which rights groups and Palestinian officials have long advocated for.
Bear will join two other former military leaders on a trip to the United States next week, where they hope to win the support of Jewish community leaders and members of Congress.
Shlomo Karhi, minister of communications from Netanyahu’s Likud party, told the military objectors Monday: “Israel doesn’t need you, and you can go to hell.”
Last week, Netanyahu compared the nearly 200,000 protesters who flooded the streets of Tel Aviv with the hundreds of settlers who embarked on a vengeful rampage through the Palestinian town of Huwara earlier that week, torching cars, businesses and homes, including many with children inside, and attacking residents.
“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, said Smotrich’s statement was “a gift” because it showed that Israel’s highest-ranking ministers support war crimes.
“This is not about law,” he said. “It’s about changing the rules of the game.”