Rabbis Defy Israel, Forbid Soldiers to Exit West Bank

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A CONTROVERSIAL ruling by a group of right-wing Israeli rabbis Wednesday forbidding soldiers to take part in the evacuation of military bases or Jewish settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank has caused a massive uproar here.

Thousands of observant Jews in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) are likely to obey the ruling, religious leaders and analysts say.

The ruling has brought the government into direct confrontation with a significant section of the country's powerful religious establishment and could create an irrevocable split in its ranks.

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Leaders of the right-wing Likud Party have come out against the rabbis' ruling. Former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said that the rabbis were wrong if they believed that dangers to Israel's existence could be removed by creating dangers to the existence of the Army.

The prospect of clashes between Jewish settlers and soldiers of the IDF and even a mutiny within the IDF were heightened by Wednesday's ruling of the Rabbinic Coalition for the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. The coalition includes some 1,500 rabbis in Israel, including many senior rabbis authorized to interpret Jewish religious law.

The ruling could slow down implementation of an Israel-PLO plan - now in final drafting stage - for a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank ahead of Palestinian elections due before the end of the year.

''The decision that was made today is that it is prohibited according to the Torah (Old Testament) to withdraw from any camps and transfer these camps to any other authority,'' said Rabbi Shalom Gold, vice-chairman of the Rabbinic Coalition. Thousands of observant Jews in the IDF belong to Hesder (religious) units and went to Hesder Yeshivot (schools) that combine religious instruction and military training.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin described the ruling as ''grave, unprecedented, and inconceivable.'' A senior parliament leader said that soldiers obeying the rabbis' edict would be ''criminally responsible'' and would lose their positions in the military. The IDF Rabbinate said yesterday that soldiers should obey the orders of their officers and not the directive of the rabbis. Israel Radio reported that the attorney-general was considering bringing criminal charges against the rabbis who signed the ruling.

The ruling is part of a growing civil-disobedience campaign by right-wing religious and nationalist elements trying to block withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the West Bank according to a draft Israel-PLO agreement for extending Palestinian autonomy. The agreement, due to be signed in Washington next week, is in last-minute negotiations over unresolved issues. Negotiators have set themselves a July 25 deadline.

Under the draft withdrawal plan, some 12,000 to 15,000 armed Palestinian police are due to replace the withdrawing Israeli soldiers in four West Bank towns in the first phase of the pullout. The future of the settlers is due to be resolved in negotiations next May. Mr. Rabin said the action by ''a group of rabbis'' could not be tolerated. ''It is inconceivable that such a thing could happen in Israel,'' he said. ''It is unthinkable that we will turn Israel into a banana republic.''

Rabbi Gold told the Monitor that the coalition stood by its decision and was merely interpreting Jewish religious law for soldiers facing a growing dilemma. ''We are not calling on soldiers to disobey orders - we are giving them an interpretation of rabbinical law,'' he says. ''There is such a thing as conscientious objection.''

In the past, intellectuals and left-leaning officials have said that they would refuse to serve in Lebanon and dismantle Arab homes in the West Bank. Soldiers who refused to serve on the West Bank were accommodated.

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