Vita Bekker
The National
November 19, 2009 - 1:00am

A growing threat of mutiny by pro-settler soldiers has alarmed Israel’s senior political and military leaders and spurred fears that a rightwards shift in the country’s army may hinder any future land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.

On Monday, six soldiers hung a banner on a rooftop inside their military base proclaiming their refusal to dismantle Jewish outposts in the occupied West Bank. That rebellion followed a demonstration last month by conscripts, who waved banners calling for continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, during their swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem.

Some commentators said the incidents reflected a new tactic being used by settlers to fight any future withdrawal from occupied territory by instigating a revolt within the military forces that may have to force them to leave.

Chaim Levinson, a commentator in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, wrote: “Right-wing activists have reached the conclusion that battle strategies against the evacuation of outposts need to be changed … they have identified a weak point [by joining forces with] soldiers who share their stances.” Indeed, according to the newspaper, the soldiers carefully coordinated their protests in both instances with settlers, who made sure to have photos taken and distributed to the media within minutes.

The new tactic is not going unnoticed by the country’s leadership. Senior government officials warned this week of more revolt in the ranks should there not be a crackdown on disobedient soldiers in the army, a highly revered institution long seen as off-limits to political debate.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, cautioned that Israel’s “security and existence depend on the Israel Defence Forces … if you promote disobedience, you will bring about the downfall of the state.” Ehud Barak, the defence minister, issued his own warning to the rebels, saying: “We will extract this phenomenon from its roots without hesitation. We will not allow it to spread.”

Still, right-wing influence within the army appears to be spreading, and the military appears to be at least partly to blame. Analysts said that the army cooperates with religious authorities to encourage more young religious men to serve in combat units as it attempts to curb a rise in draft-dodging among the general Jewish population.

Military service is mandatory for all 18-year-olds in Israel, and exceptions are made only for ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs and people deemed as having psychological or medical problems.

Yagil Levy, who researches the rising influence on the military of messianic Zionism, whose followers include many of the settlers, said at a conference last week: “The main interest of the national religious establishment in increasing army recruitment … comes from their belief that a military with a high proportion of the religious will not easily act to evacuate settlements.”

According to Mr Levy, between one-quarter and one-third of the soldiers in the military’s combat units are overtly religious, a dramatic rise from the 1980s. Indeed, Mr Levy said a central consideration in Israel’s reluctance to withdraw from the West Bank is that it expects any such move to be massively opposed by many of the recruits on whom it depends to fill its reserve ranks in any future wars.

Mr Levy said the army has yet to come to terms with the fact that many of the soldiers serving with units in the West Bank are graduates of religious institutions in the occupied territory and increasingly heed their rabbis’ rulings instead of obeying their commanders’ orders.

Elyakim Levanon, a rabbi of a Jewish seminary in the West Bank, who in the past has called on soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements, was quoted by Israeli media as saying it was no surprise that the troops had protested against dismantling settlements. He added: “There are some soldiers who cannot implement these orders by the military. It is like asking a man to strike his brother.”

In the two recent protest incidents, the soldiers were from two of the six battalions that make up the Kfir brigade, the army’s biggest, and which had been set up in 2005 to be permanently deployed in the West Bank. The brigade, where many of the soldiers and at least half of the battalion commanders are religious, has more interaction with Palestinians than any other brigade because its duties include manning checkpoints and conducting arrest raids. Since it was set up, Kfir has also drawn media attention for being investigated by the military in several cases involving violence against Palestinians.

In a highly publicised incident in August 2007, 12 out of 40 soldiers in a company of one of Kfir’s battalions refused to climb on a bus departing from their base and heading to the West Bank city of Hebron, where they were supposed to take part in the eviction of Jewish families from a Palestinian home they had taken over.


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