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Soldiers' refusal to heed West Bank evacuation orders roils Israel

Israel is jailing soldiers who disobeyed orders Tuesday to evict Jewish settlers in Hebron.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 2007


The Israeli military order sounded small and simple: evacuate two families of Jewish settlers who had moved to the West Bank city of Hebron without permission.

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But when 12 soldiers refused Tuesday, that order turned significant and symbolic. Israel is awash in debate over whether its army can tolerate soldiers who won't carry out orders they oppose ideologically.

The answer from the army is no; it is sending those soldiers to jail.

With Israel likely to again evacuate large numbers of Jewish settlements, divisions over territorial compromise are rising to the surface and causing an uproar over army discipline. A historic land-for-peace deal once again in the offing, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders are inching back to the negotiating table for the first time in several years.

"The government and the army are worried that if they get away with this, it will be the model for many others to refuse," explains Yair Sheleg, an analyst at the Israel Democracy Institute who specializes in the tenuous relationship between the state and the settlers.

"I think both sides are looking upon this era as a time of testing each other and making threats," says Mr. Sheleg. "The government is trying to show that they're not afraid of violence of settlers, and the settlers want to show the price will be very high and every evacuation will be painful. It's also important for Ehud Barak, as the new minister of defense, to show that he is tough and he is not afraid of a clash with the settlers."

Gaza disengagement resonates

Though the scale of the evacuation Tuesday morning was small, it ended with 27 soldiers and civilians injured. The refusals represented the largest act of military insubordination since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza two years ago.

At that time, soldiers were ordered to remove approximately 8,000 settlers, many of them by force. Fears of wide-scale refusal to cooperate among soldiers from religious-Zionist homes did not materialize.

Today, there is much regret among the more hard-line settlers that they didn't do more in 2005, and a high degree of motivation to prevent further withdrawals from disputed territory.

But most of the Israeli public, says Sheleg, is more easily rankled by the idea of soldiers refusing to follow orders for political or religious reasons than it is by the concept of settlers being moved out of homes, even in Hebron, a tinderbox town that is holy to both Jews and Muslims as the burial place of Abraham and the other biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.

"The public consensus is very much against disobeying," says Sheleg, also a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper.

In response, officers from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are threatening to marginalize the rabbis who encouraged their students to refuse orders by cancelling special arrangements in which young men can sign up to fulfill their army service while they pursue religious studies.

Israel has periodically sent to jail men who refuse, usually on ideologically left-wing grounds, to serve in the military in general, or in the West Bank and Gaza in particular.

Today, however, the Israeli military establishment is warily viewing the right-wing "national-religious" camp – whose sons boast a high rate of joining the army and volunteering for combat units – with concern that generals will find themselves with foot soldiers who won't follow orders.