Looming Gaza withdrawal sows division in army

TEKOA, West Bank — As a combat soldier in an Israeli army engineers battalion, Avi Bieber had always volunteered for the toughest missions.
But when the 19-year-old, US-born corporal was ordered to take part in pre-withdrawal operations in Gaza’s main settlement bloc, he refused, becoming a hero to many Jewish settlers but conjuring up nightmare scenarios for the military’s top brass.

Captured on camera shouting “Jews do not expel Jews” before being hustled off to jail, Bieber highlighted a growing secular-religious divide within the army over Israel’s pullout from the occupied Gaza Strip set to begin on August 17.

Israeli officials are now worried that many other soldiers may follow his example, which would hamper Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan” and threaten the unity of the Middle East’s most powerful fighting force.

Refusing an order is considered a deep taboo in Israel’s “citizens army.” “It’s a significant crack in the armour,” said Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld. “If the ‘refusenik’ phenomenon continues, it could create problems.”

Conscripts are still drawn from a broad cross-section of society, but the army is increasingly populated by religious Jews who believe the occupied territories are Israel’s by biblical birthright and must never be ceded to the Palestinians.

They form a segment of the military estimated to make up a quarter of all combat troops and considered most susceptible to hardline rabbis’ calls for mass disobedience against settlement evacuation, which they brand as a sin against God.

Like Bieber, many soldiers assigned to the pullout are settlers themselves, mostly from West Bank enclaves, and deeply conflicted about evicting their Gaza brethren.

In fact, some fear their own settlements could be next if Sharon comes under US pressure for further withdrawals from land Palestinians claim for a state.

Breaking ranks

Bieber, now serving a 56-day jail term, was the first soldier sentenced for defying orders to take action against settlers due to be evacuated. His act of insubordination means he will never again be allowed to serve in a combat unit.

Several dozen other troops have also faced punishment for breaking ranks, and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz has warned there will be “zero tolerance” for refuseniks.

“I have no regrets,” Bieber said, answering questions passed to him through his father, a religiously observant Jew who moved his family from New Jersey to the occupied West Bank in 1996. “I went into the army to defend Jews, not to hurt them.”

Since his mutiny at the end of June, the young conscript has been showered him with marriage proposals from settler women, and one Gaza settlement even renamed a street after him.

“Avi has become the poster boy for anti-disengagement,” his father, Ralph Bieber, 49, said proudly in the family’s living room in the Tekoa settlement, near biblical Bethlehem.

As he spoke, a video playing on a big-screen television showed his son’s scowling refusal to remove unruly settlers blocking the demolition of abandoned buildings, a precursor to dismantling Gaza’s Gush Katif settlement cluster.

Capt. Ishai David, an army spokesman, said religion and ideology could not justify the “anarchy of disobedience.”

Army service is a rite of passage for most Israeli men and many women. The military traditionally has been seen in Israel as a unifying force above the country’s turbulent politics. Top generals often go straight from the battlefield into government.

But now the looming Gaza withdrawal that has split Israeli society is widening the rift between secular soldiers who mostly support evacuation and religious troops who oppose it.

The two groups already take different oaths when they go into the military. Secular soldiers swear allegiance to the state. Religious soldiers only “declare” their allegiance because they believe it is wrong to swear a vow except to God.

This is not the first time the army, officially known as the Israel Defence Forces, or IDF, has had to cope with refuseniks.

During a five-year-old Palestinian uprising, hundreds of leftists refused service in the West Bank and Gaza, where 250,000 settlers live isolated from 3.8 million Palestinians.

But analysts believe dissent in the ranks could have wider repercussions this time due to the military’s shifting makeup.

In recent decades, government-certified “Hesder” seminaries, which mix military duties with religious studies, have poured a thousand recruits a year into the army. But concerned that many of the seminaries’ rabbis are now inciting students to disobey orders, army chiefs are threatening to cut ties to the schools.

Blown out of proportion?

Brig. Gen. Uzi Moscovich, who heads a division assigned to settlement evacuation, predicted the total number of refuseniks would go no higher than the low three digits and would not be enough to hinder the evacuation of Gaza’s 8,500 settlers.

Despite that, military police are readying jail space for hundreds of dissenters, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot said. Among those already held are several members of an Orthodox platoon disbanded after refusing to disperse protesters, and an army rabbi who last week urged soldiers manning the main crossing point with Gush Katif to ignore orders.

Some of the 40,000 troops assigned to evacuate Gaza’s 21 settlements have already scuffled with rightist demonstrators calling them “Nazis.” But there are fears a hard core of settlers vowing to resist eviction could turn violent.

To reduce friction, evacuation will be suspended each Friday and Saturday to avoid conflicting with the Jewish Sabbath. Company commanders also have been given psychological training to help their men cope. None has felt the dilemma more than soldiers who live in the Gaza settlements themselves.

A skullcap-wearing captain was shown recently on television fighting back tears as neighbours harangued him to disobey orders and allow protesters past the roadblock he commanded. But he stood his ground. Senior officers hope other religious soldiers will follow his lead. But they are mindful that after decades of fighting outside threats, Israel’s army is now facing one from within.

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