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Israel’s Top Bomber Pilots Join Protests

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Nearly all the reserve pilots in Israel’s elite long-range bomber squadron and other key members of the military have joined a growing strike in protest against the Netanyahu government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

On Saturday night, 250,000 Israelis took to the streets over changes they claim will “spell the end of democracy”, the largest such demonstration for two months.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to power in December as head of an alliance of right-wing parties, wants to limit Supreme Court powers to oversee legislation and government actions, and pack the judicial appointments committee with members of his coalition.

The moves have resulted in nationwide criticism but the response of the military, long a force of unity in the country, is particularly significant.

Many elite units rely heavily on reservists, including the air force’s renowned 69 Squadron, known as “The Hammers”. It is the sole operator of the Boeing F-15I, a long-range strike variant of the American F-15 Eagle, central to any Israeli plan to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations.

A total of 37 of the 40 reserve ­pilots of 69 Squadron declared they would refuse to turn up for training, it emerged on Sunday.

Israeli fighter squadrons are based on a core of full-time crew and a larger number of reservists who fly once a week and take part in exercises and missions.

An officer in an airborne unit told The Times: “Our WhatsApp groups are raging, with most of the unit saying they won’t turn up for the next training exercise.”

They will still fly operational missions, such as the regular strikes against targets in Syria but keeping a squadron at full operational capacity will become difficult once most of its aircrew are not taking part in regular training.

“There’s a feeling that this far right and religious government is transforming Israel into a country which isn’t ‘ours’ any more, so why should we volunteer to serve in its army?” the officer said.

The reservists received a boost at the weekend from Dan Halutz, a former air force commander and Israel Defence Forces chief of staff. The retired lieutenant-­general said in an interview: “You have to be blind not to see the message from the reservists in the security establishment who won’t serve under a dictatorship, full stop.”

He said they feared that politicisation of the military would be next. “Their pain is huge, caught between their desire to continue doing their duty and their incapability to trust the decision-makers not to send them on missions serving their agenda.”

Alarmed at the possible implications to his squadrons, Major General Tomer Bar, commander of the air force, has sent a plea to reservists, begging them to turn up for training.

He insisted that the military values “remained unchanged”.

He also defended his crews from suggestions by pro-government journalists that the reservists were “privileged anarchists”.

The N12 News channel reported that the national airline, El Al, was having trouble finding a crew to fly Mr Netanyahu on a state visit to Italy this week because of a boycott by pilots over the judicial reforms. However, El Al said it would not support boycotts, “particularly against the prime minister of Israel”, and that the flight had been staffed and would depart as planned.

According to reports last week, Mr Netanyahu was considering a pause in the legislation. However, his coalition partners, who see the Supreme Court as an ideological foe, are pressing him to stay on track, as is Justice Minister Yariv Levin, an influential member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party. Mr Levin is believed to have threatened to resign if the legislation is delayed. It is due to come before parliament for the first of three votes before becoming law.

Mr Netanyahu, 73, has strenuously denied that the judicial changes are designed to affect the outcome of his trial for bribery and fraud, charges he denies, but the reforms include a provision that would allow the veteran prime minister to keep a $US270,000 donation he received from a relative to pay his legal bills, stoking criticism.

The ministerial committee for legislation has approved a draft law that would let public officials accept donations for legal or medical bills, despite vocal objections by the attorney-general that it would promote corruption.

Last year, the high court ordered Mr Netanyahu to pay back the funds given by a late cousin to cover legal expenses for him and his wife, Sara, 64, who became a target of the protests last week when crowds gathered outside a Tel Aviv salon where she was having her hair done.

Scores of police officers had to escort her to safety.

Mr Netanyahu’s allies say the changes are needed to reduce the power of unelected judges. Critics, however, warn that they will eliminate checks and balances, concentrating power with the ruling majority. Among the reforms’ fiercest critics has been Mr Netanyahu’s greatest political rival, Ehud Barak, who is both a former army chief of staff and former ­Labour Party prime minister.

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Article source: The Australian / The Times | Anshel Pfeffer | 7.3.23

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000