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Why some military reservists are not reporting for duty in Israel

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Some military reservists in Israel are refusing to report for duty. They're aligning themselves with a protest movement against the right-wing government's plans to weaken the Israeli judiciary. NPR's Daniel Estrin spoke with some reservists and gives us this report on what's at stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Omer Dank is in the streets after decades in the sky. Recently retired from the air force, he fought in every major Israeli military campaign since the early '90s. Now he says Israel is fighting him.

OMER DANK: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: "The Israeli government has launched a war against its citizens," he said in a speech at a roadside protest. "We are under attack over Israel's basic common denominator - liberal democracy." Israel's government is proposing to weaken the independence of the Supreme Court. Many Israeli reservists have threatened not to serve. Hundreds have already skipped reserve duties.

DANK: It's a real big deal.

ESTRIN: That's Dank speaking to NPR. His job was to sit in the back of an F-16 fighter jet and guide bombs to their targets.

DANK: If the courts won't be independent or won't be considered as independent by the world, by the U.N., by the U.S., every pilot in the Israeli air force will be at risk of being arrested in other countries.

ESTRIN: Israel has already faced allegations of war crimes for its airstrikes on Gaza, killing civilians while fighting Hamas. Some officials have even faced European arrest warrants. But Israel has staved off prosecution, arguing that its judiciary holds the military to account. Human rights groups say Israel doesn't do that enough. Dank says the proposed legal changes could tip the balance.

DANK: No one will be able to give us the assurance that it will be OK.

ESTRIN: The widespread calls for disobedience throughout Israel's military units are unprecedented. In Israel, most citizens must serve in the military, and many volunteer for decades in the reserves. Israel's military depends on reservists for special missions. Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi is worried.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERZI HALEVI: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He told reservists in a speech, "Disobedience is a red line. There are cracks that can form that we won't be able to fix later." Amir Avivi, who runs a veterans group, says the military should be kept out of politics.

AMIR AVIVI: We are all very, very worried about this reality where reservists say that because of some political views, they are not going to come to their military duty. It's not acceptable.

ESTRIN: He says reservists who don't report for duty to the Israel Defense Forces can weaken the country's security.

AVIVI: We need bigger unity. We have big, big challenges around us - Iran, the Palestinian arena, international things that are going on. The IDF is above politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have protested weekly for more than two months. At one protest, I met special forces reservist Dor Winter.

DOR WINTER: I'm not going to serve if all those laws are going to take place in the next few months. I'm not - I don't believe in it. And at the end of the day, I love Israel. I love to serve in the army, but not on those conditions. It's not only me. It's also my teammates, my team members, my commandos - all of us.

ESTRIN: Under public pressure, the government says it's toning down its proposed overhaul. But the opposition says it would still weaken the judiciary. And reservists are not backing down. They're planning more rallies with slogans like Operation No Half Democracy.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.