Hundreds of elite Israeli reservists say they will join the legal protests

JERUSALEM, March 19 (Reuters) – A group of Israelis who describe themselves as reservists in the military and intelligence services said they will not carry out some duties starting on Sunday, fueling protests against the hard-right government’s planned judicial reform.

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 powers to be enacted by April 2.

The plan has raised concerns about Israel’s democratic health at home and abroad. As ratification approaches, protests have intensified, the shekel has slipped and national security veterans, who are usually afraid of publicity, have voiced their fears.

In a letter sent to Israeli media, 450 protesters, who described themselves as volunteer reservists of the army’s special forces, and 200 volunteer reservists as offensive cyber operators, including from the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence services, said they were now refusing the invitations.

Reuters was unable to verify the identities of the signatories, and secrecy surrounding the units they said they belonged to also made it difficult to assess the protest’s potential impact.

“We have no contract with a dictator. We will be happy to volunteer when democracy is secured,” the letter says.

The military declined to comment. Mossad and Shin Bet representatives did not immediately respond to Reuters inquiries.

Netanyahu calls for judicial reform to restore balance between governments. Critics see the prime minister – who is on trial on corruption charges he denies – subordinating the courts to the executive branch.

On Sunday, the Knesset’s revisions committee was scheduled to discuss a bill that would give the coalition more power to appoint sessions before the final plenary voting sessions.

Critics say this could promote corruption and jeopardize the independence of the judiciary, which is key to Israel’s economic strength and defense against attempts to isolate it internationally.

Netanyahu has condemned the protesters’ entry into the army as an attempt to undermine an institution that is supposed to be above politics. Some opposition leaders have expressed such misgivings, while others say an authoritarian tilt in government would call the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčnational duty into question.

“As the country stands on the brink of a dictatorship, we are likely to see the disintegration of the security agencies,” former Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman told Channel 12 TV. “It’s extraordinarily scary.”

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

Signaling that the demonstration would be called off due to a mandatory wartime call, he said: “We are not demanding the abandonment of orders. We are demanding an end to voluntary work.”

Most Israelis are conscripted into the army for two to three years. Some continue to serve in the reserves until middle age. While reservists have helped Israel emerge victorious in previous wars, it has recently relied on regular troops.

But some units find reservists especially valuable because of their maturity and accumulated skills. An air force pilot who participated in the demonstrations told channel 12 that no less than 60 percent of the crews sent to bombard Syria are volunteer reservists.

(This story has been reworded to include the deleted words in paragraph 2)

Screenplay: Dan Williams Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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