Soldiers' refusal to heed West Bank evacuation orders roils Israel

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

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.

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.

The military's outrage over the issue was underscored by the fact that several prominent rabbis from the right-wing religious seminaries told their students – who are simultaneously enlisted in the military – that they shouldn't participate in the evacuation of settlements.

"We of course support what these soldiers did," says Elyakim Veisman-Stern, the spokesman of the council of rabbis in Yesha, the settlers' umbrella organization.

He quoted a late rabbi who ruled that soldiers should not do what is against the Torah, and this included giving up part of Israel.

"We argue something like this strengthens the army," he adds, "because if its army that does something without thinking, that's what destroys. That's like acting like a computer, with a disk in your head."

Defense Minister Barak, the Labor party leader and former prime minister, offered pointed words Tuesday for those who refused to follow orders.

"Soldiers take their orders from the company commander, the unit commander, the brigade commander, and no one else, important and dignified as they may be. The army of a nation seeking to survive must be adamant about this principle," Mr. Barak told reporters.

A religious vs. secular debate

But the head of one yeshiva, or seminary, in the West Bank settlement of Otniel, charges that the real failure was on the part of the army commanders, because some of the soldiers asked to do the job were either settlers who lived nearby or, in one case, a young man whose family had been evacuated from a Gaza Strip settlement two years ago.

"I'm usually against refusing orders, but the reason for it here is a total failure of the officers' orders," Rabbi Ram Hacohen said in an interview on Israel Radio.

Zevulun Orlev, the head of the parliamentary faction of the National Religious Party, said in a later interview that it was "total insensitivity" to demand that a soldier who lost his home in Gaza participate in evacuating other families.

"The criticism of these refusals to carry out orders should also come alongside criticism of the government policy," Mr. Orlev said.

The refusal en masse strikes a nerve among many Israelis because it forces into the spotlight the split between those who believe in the primacy of state decisionmaking and those who feel themselves answerable to a higher authority. Israel's mostly secular establishment harbors an underlying discomfort with the ascendancy of religious people in the military, says Eyal Ben Ari, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"The perception among the majority of Israeli Jews is that the crunch has come. They think there is a substantial part of this national-religious camp [that] does not accept the State of Israel as a democratic, open society, and basically follows the rabbinical authorities," says Mr. Ben-Ari, a sociologist and anthropologist who specializes in the role of the army in Israeli society.

"A very vocal minority is saying that 'we are above the law, the land of Israel is one of the most important values that we believe in, and under certain circumstances, we can question the very authority of the state to preserve it,' " Mr. Ben Ari explains. "This division between obeying rabbinical authority and obeying state authority is now coming to a head."

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