Israeli doctors declared a strike on Tuesday and more army reservists have asked to halt service in a public backlash over the hard-right government’s ratification of the first stage of a judicial overhaul that critics say endangers democracy.
With long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing his gravest domestic crisis, Israel’s military took its first known internal disciplinary action over the protests. One reservist was fined 1,000 shekels ($270) and another given a suspended 15-day jail sentence for ignoring call-ups.
“There has been an increase in requests to halt reserve duty,” Brigadier General Daniel Hagari told Israeli reporters in remarks confirmed by a military spokesman.
“If reservists do not report for duty for a long duration, there will be damage done to the preparedness of the military,” Hagari said, adding this would be “a gradual process”.
The military spokesman gave no further details on the number of requests to abstain from volunteer service.
“A Black Day for Israeli Democracy,” read the ad on the front of major newspapers placed by a group describing itself as hi-tech workers worried about the judiciary changes pursued by the ruling religious-nationalist coalition.
The bill curbing Supreme Court review of some state decisions passed in a stormy Knesset (parliament) on Monday after an opposition walkout. As the vote took place, protesters were out in their thousands, some scuffling with police.
Protest leaders said growing numbers of military reservists would no longer report for duty if the government pressed ahead with its plans. Former top brass have also warned that Israel’s war-readiness, with Arab and Iranian adversaries spread across the Middle East, could be at risk.
Israel’s enemies have convened top-level meetings to consider the turmoil and how they might capitalise on it, sources familiar with the discussions told Reuters.
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in comments to Army Radio, said the military was combat-ready even though reservists wanted to “put a gun to the head of the government”.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid asked protesting reservists to hold off, pending any Supreme Court ruling on appeals against the new law. Both a political watchdog group and the Israel Bar Association have filed challenges.
The crisis has deeply split Israeli society and hit the economy hard by triggering foreign investor flight, weakening the shekel currency and raising the spectre of a general strike by the Histadrut public sector union.
It has also strained ties with the West including close ally the United States which called Monday’s vote “unfortunate”.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for political consensus through political dialogue in Israel during a call on Tuesday with Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant, calling this essential to “a resilient democracy”, the Pentagon said.
Netanyahu has said he wants consensus on any further legislation by November.
Gallant’s ministry said he told Austin that Israel was “a strong democracy and will remain this way in the future”.
COURT ORDERS DOCTORS BACK
The Israel Medical Association called a 24-hour strike around the nation, though not in Jerusalem, which is the scene of escalating confrontations.
However, the Tel Aviv Regional Labour Court ordered the doctors to return to work, backing a government injunction request, a copy of the ruling seen by Reuters showed.
Physicians said they would not remain silent.
“Tomorrow the physicians will go back to work, but I can say that thousands of them are not going to be silent, because there is a strong feeling…that we cannot work as physicians when Israel is no more a democratic state,” said Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.
Angering critics further, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish coalition partners said they would submit legislation shoring up exemption from mandatory military service for their constituents studying in seminaries. However, Netanyahu’s Likud party said no such bill would be pursued for now.
Disquiet has spread to the arts. Divided audience members heckled and applauded a cast member in a popular musical in Tel Aviv as he read a statement on the crisis, and a fellow actor strode off stage in apparent exasperation, according to video on social media.
First elected to top office in 1996 and now in his sixth term, Netanyahu, 73, has cast the judicial overhaul as a redressing of balance among branches of government.
Complicating Netanyahu’s position is a corruption trial in which he denies wrongdoing, and his weekend hospitalisation to receive a pacemaker. His coalition’s expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied land where Palestinians seek to establish a state has also weighed on relations with Washington.
In new violence, Israeli troops killed three Palestinian militants who opened fire on them from a car near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, Israel’s defence minister said.
On another front, the Israeli military confirmed as genuine a video on social media showing masked men in commando clothing pacing through brush on the other side of the Lebanese border fence, an area controlled by the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.
A Lebanese source familiar with the development said the men were members of a Hezbollah elite unit on a patrol that had nothing to do with Israel’s domestic crisis.
Hezbollah’s media office said it had no comment.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Monday that Israel’s domestic crisis showed it was on a “path of collapse and fragmentation”.