Protests by Israel’s reserve forces took an unusual turn over the weekend as navy veterans donned wetsuits and tried to reach Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private seaside villa by rowing.
With their kayaks draped in Israeli flags, and others snorkelling alongside them, the reservists took to the water in the 11th consecutive week of nationwide protests to stop the government from a planned judicial overhaul that critics say will spell the end of democracy.
While their approach was somewhat light-hearted, some 650 volunteer military reservists on Sunday began a strike saying that they will only return to duty “when democracy is safe”.
Weeks of protests
Mr Netanyahu has faced weeks of protests over his controversial legal reforms, which critics say will weaken the supreme court’s ability to strike down legislation and increase the government’s influence over judges.
Mr Netanyahu, who is currently on trial over corruption charges that he strongly denies, says the reforms are a necessary step as the judiciary has too much control over government policy.
A growing number of military reservists, who have long been a cornerstone of Israeli society, have been threatening to refuse duty if called up over the reform proposals.
Their strike is going ahead despite condemnations from both the far-Right coalition that Mr Netanyahu leads and the opposition, who have warned that national security cannot be put at risk over internal politics.
In a letter circulated around Israeli media, organisers of the group said the striking members included 450 officers and soldiers from the Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division and 200 from cyber warfare units, including from the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies.
“We have no contract with a dictator. We would be happy to volunteer when democracy is safeguarded,” the letter said. “When a country stands on the threshold of dictatorship, we are likely to see a break-down of the security agencies,” former Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman told Channel 12 TV. “It is extraordinarily terrifying.”
The group urged other reservists to join their ranks, though caveated that in the event of a wartime callup they would suspend their strike. A group of 300 reservists and officers in the Air Force – including drone operators, crews, and air traffic control operators – were later reported to have said they would not show up for training this week.
The scale of the protest movement has caused some alarm in the Israeli military leadership. While military conscription typically only lasts two to three years, many troops continue as reservists until their 40s making them a significant bulk of the manpower in many squadrons.
Also on Sunday, an Israeli man was shot and seriously wounded by a Palestinian attacker in the flashpoint West Bank village of Huwara. According to Israeli media reports, the Palestinian shooter was arrested shortly after his victim returned fire.
Huwara, which sits on a major highway connecting Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, was also the scene of a similar attack on Israelis three weeks ago. In response to that attack, settlers rampaged through the village, burning dozens of buildings and killing a Palestinian man.