Expert on the military in Israel: “A people’s army”

Expert on the military in Israel: “A people’s army”

Thousands of reservists in Israel are refusing to serve because they reject judicial reform. An expert says why this is an alarm signal for the government.

People demonstrate with the flags of Israel

Spontaneous protest on the streets of Tel Aviv after the removal of Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg/ap

taz: Mr. Shelah, soldiers and reservists of the Israeli military refuse to serve in protest against the judicial reform. Was there ever a similar situation in the history of Israel?

Ofer Shelah: No never. In the past there have always been protests by military reservists, for example in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War or in 2006 after the second Lebanon war. The difference, however, is that the protesters at the time were former reservists who had already completed their service. Only then did they make their stance public and, above all, demanded that those who they believed to be responsible for these conflicts be held accountable and resign. It is the first time that large numbers of reservists – exact numbers are not available, but there are several thousand – are refusing to work. They say: If the government follows through with its plans, democracy in Israel will be changed irrevocably. And for such a state we do not want to serve.

Reservists are not active duty soldiers, they only have to attend reserve training once a year. They get a lot of attention in the Israeli media and in society for their intended conscientious objection. Why is it so important what this group thinks?

The Israeli military is a people’s army. Reservists are in key positions, such as commanders. The main battles of past Israeli wars have been fought by reserve forces. They are considered the reservoir of power that enables Israel to win wars. The line between the military and society is much more blurred in Israel than in other countries. Not only because every Israeli is drafted into military service, but also because there is a strong bond between the people and the Israeli military. In the 75 years of its existence, Israel has been embroiled in changing conflicts every single day.

Is that why Secretary of Defense Yoaw Gallant opposed the reform?

The media reported extensively that more and more reservists were planning to refuse service. And the Israeli army personnel reported this observation to the defense minister, who then addressed the public and the government. Many active-duty generals and officers in the army also see this danger, but are unable to publicly express their views. Whoever is going to replace Gallant, there will certainly be some distrust of him from the military and reservists alike. Gallant has accepted the danger emanating from the population’s dissatisfaction with the reforms and has positioned itself accordingly. What will his successor do?

Israel’s north is home to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Gaza and the West Bank are home to Hamas and other terrorist groups – external actors waiting for Israel to see a moment of weakness. Does the government underestimate this danger?

The best mediator between the disparate factions of any society – and Israeli society in particular – is an outside threat. But the important thing is that if the Israeli military starts to fall apart, we’re in big trouble, no matter what our enemies think.

Why does the government believe despite all protests still think the planned reform is worth this strife?

This government is trying to weaken the Supreme Court’s powers to overrule government decisions or laws. This also has to do with their will to annex the West Bank or at least to position themselves differently towards the Palestinians.

Do you think that at some point the government will have to make concessions in order to this conflict with the military, but also with the general public?

The government must stop this legislation and start a process of debate, discourse and compromise. This law has opened a Pandora’s box in Israeli society: many of the issues, fissures and tensions that existed within the society before have now become clearly visible.

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