In a sea of Israeli flags, Yiftach Golov holds one that looks a little different.
Among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets for the 13th week in a row on Saturday, Golov hoists a brown flag that represents a group called “Brother and Sisters in Arms.”
They are veterans – many, like Golov, from elite forces – who now feel they are fighting on a new battlefield: To save Israeli democracy.
“We believe this is our responsibility to go once again called to the flag of the nation to stop this madness to defend Israel,” Golov said, as he weaved his way through the protesters on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan street, between the high-rises that house many of Israel’s high tech companies.
During the second intifada, in the early 2000s, Golov served in a special forces reconnaissance unit. He was never before particularly political, focusing more on getting his PhD in biophysics from Tel Aviv University.
But when the protest movement against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan began in January, Golov attended one a demonstration and soon became one of thousands of veterans, and now military reservists, who have taken up the cause as their new mission.
Some, including elite Air Force reservists, have taken it a step further, threatening not to heed the call to train or even serve in protest of the government’s plans planned judicial changes, which would give the governing parties more control over Israel’s judiciary.
Others have taken to becoming some of the most active organizers and demonstrators. Last week, a group from Brothers and Sisters in Arms protested by carrying a figure wrapped in the Israeli flag on a stretcher, the way they would carry a wounded comrade off the field.
While Golov says he has not taken the drastic step to refuse service, he understands the motivation.
“We’re fighting for justice and liberty, just like the American story, that’s the values that that are being represented symbolized back when we look at our flag, that’s something that was lacking lacking for the last few decades. So basically, we reclaim the flag,” he said.
Fellow members of the group, all wearing brown shirts with the organization’s logo, come up and say hello. They’re sprinkled all throughout the protests. One is even leading the “Pink Front,” a group of coordinated drummers who look like they are dressed for a rave, and often lead the chants at the protests.
They’re using skills they learned in the military – how to organize, how to mobilize – now for the protests. But more importantly, they say they have the same type of motivation.
“The very deep feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself, that (you’re) allowed to sacrifice anything that is needed, whether it’s your career, health, seriously mental health,” Golov said. “We all have a mission, you’re willing to do it at any cost. You’re very determined, you know that you are on the right side, you’re carrying the torch of light. That keeps us being highly motivated despite the fact that we’re not sleeping for days.”
Israel’s protest movement is made up of many disparate groups, but the pressure from Israel’s much vaunted veterans has been seen as a key to moving the needle.
Last Monday, after weeks of sustained protests and the largest general strike in Israeli history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a pause to the legislation, to allow time for negotiations with the opposition.
But despite the announcements, protesters are still out in the streets in large numbers. CNN affiliate Channel 12 in Israel estimated the size of Saturday’s demonstration in Tel Aviv at about 150,000 people. Organizers claimed it was 230,000.
Last Monday’s mass protests and widespread strike action came a day after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for advocating a delay in passing the legislation.
In a televised speech, Gallant said the pause was needed “for the security of Israel,” citing the refusal of some Israel Defense Forces reservists to train in protest of the government plans. He said pressing ahead with the proposals could threaten Israel’s security.
Under pressure at home and from allies abroad, Netanyahu said he would delay votes on the remaining legislation until after the Knesset’s Passover recess in April “to give time for a real chance for a real debate.”
“Out of the responsibility to the nation, I decided to delay … the vote, in order to give time for discussion,” he added.
But Netanyahu indicated that the delay was only temporary. He insisted that the overhaul was necessary, and reiterated criticism of refusal to train or serve in the military in protest at the planned changes. “Refusing is the end of our country,” he said.
Many protesters don’t believe that the pause is real, or say it’s simply a stalling tactic to give Netanyahu some breathing room and get the protesters to go home before he plows on with the reforms.
“We will start doing deactivation only when we will know 100% that Israel state will stay a functional democratic country. Whatever needs to be done for that,” Golov said.