Israeli army faces a revolt from the right

As a 25-year reservist of Israel's army, Boaz Haetzni is used to following orders. Soon he could be asked to help remove some 8,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank.

It's an order he will not obey.

For Mr. Haetzni, a garage owner from the Kiryat Arba settlement in the West Bank, Israel's planned withdrawal flouts Jewish history and religion.

"Chasing someone from their home constitutes a criminal act even if the Knesset [Israel's parliament] approves it," he says. "The moment the army does this, it will no longer be my army, it will be an army of the left."

His view makes him part of a growing dissident movement opposed to Israel's planned withdrawal on religious and nationalist grounds.

This unprecedented challenge is pitting orthodox rabbis opposed to the withdrawal against the cohesion of the army - and the political will of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who crafted the plan.

Israel is accustomed to the so-called refuseniks, hundreds of left-wingers who equate military service in the occupied territories with oppressing Palestinians. But during the past week, the country has been grappling with a very different type of disobedience, one based largely on rabbinical rulings stressing God's promise to Abraham to give the land that now includes Israel and the occupied territories to his descendants.

Observers suggest that the rabbis could cause greater harm to the army than the left-wingers did because of their role as community leaders. Moreover, there are thousands of religious soldiers potentially receptive to their views.

"When it comes to the crunch these rabbis are saying there is a higher law than the law of state," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "This is a very serious challenge not only to the military but to the rule of law."

During the past two decades, soldiers from religious-Zionist backgrounds have played an increasingly important role in the army, especially in combat units. Many officers are graduates of hesder programs which combine military service with religious studies. Now rabbis heading hesder seminaries are leading the call to disobey orders to evacuate settlers.

The army has moved quickly to limit the damage. In remarks Tuesday, army chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, termed disobedience "a danger to Zionism" and called on religious leaders "not to place the army and its commanders in an impossible situation."

But the rabbis say that those pushing the withdrawal are the ones threatening the army's cohesion. "The person tearing the army asunder is Sharon," Rabbi Yitzhak Brand told Israelii TV.

A West Bank hesder seminary student, who asked not to be named, says, "This is a very complex matter and there are a lot of mixed feelings. There is a collision of two values: on the one hand, there is the Land of Israel and the Torah [the five books of Moses], and on the other, obedience to the law. Even those who decide to refuse to serve will do so in pain because they love the army."

Last week, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, likened dismantling settlements to desecrating the Sabbath. The rabbis who supported him cited Genesis 15:18, which says: "In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates:"

But there are Orthodox rabbis who differ with their stance. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who opposes the Gaza withdrawal, nevertheless issued a statement saying, "Refusing an order given by the government constitutes a giant step towards civil war."

"There is no absolute prohibition on giving up sections of the land of Israel," he added, citing King Solomon's transfer of twenty cities to Hiram, King of Tyre, in the first book of Kings. Some religious soldiers have launched a petition stating they will follow any orders to evacuate.

Captain Haetzni rejects any similarity between himself and the dovish soldiers who shun being part of the occupation. "The left-wingers refuse to take part in defending our lives, which is exactly what the army's job is," he says. "It is not the army's job to throw citizens of our country out of their homes."

QR Code to Israeli army faces a revolt from the right
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today