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Israel’s problem soldiers

Israel has one of the best armies in the Middle East, one of the best trained, and superbly successful. This is an army that has won all the wars that they have had with a number of their neighbours attacking together, starting from the war in 1948 to 1967 and then 1973. In most cases, the win was a decisive win, with Israel taking territory and then returning some of these later as part of peace accords. And it is this territory that is now causing problems. Under their belief system, hardline Jews believe that the territory of the Middle East west of the Jordan river has been given to them by God, a greater Israel. This includes the lands of the West Bank. As a sign of this, there are many Jewish settlers living amongst a midst of Palestinians, with the Israeli army being the only one able to provide security. However, from time to time, the Israelis have been forced to remove Jewish families who occupy Palestinian homes. And this is where the trouble starts. It takes a lot of force for the army to remove these settlers, who are convinced that it is their religious right and duty to live there. What the Israeli army is finding that more and more soldiers are being swayed by religious thought and unwilling to obey orders about removing these settlers:

Despite pressure by the Bush Administration and the rest of the international community for Israel to withdraw many of its Jewish citizens from 220 hilltop settlements and outposts in the disputed West Bank, such a move could be so divisive in Israel that no Prime Minister, especially one as embattled as Ehud Olmert, would risk it. After months of dithering and judicial pressure, Israel’s government decided on Aug. 7 to remove two Jewish families squatting in Palestinian-owned buildings. At 6:20 a.m., riot police bashed in doors as teenage settlers on the roof hurled down stones, oil and eggs at the police, while Wagner played over loudspeakers. (As every Israeli knows, Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer, and the music was a brutish way — for the benefit of TV news crews — for the settlers to draw a parallel between Israel’s security forces and the Nazis.)
The eviction itself went relatively smoothly, but the hard feelings it generated resound deep inside Israeli army barracks. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were initially assigned only to secondary tasks, such as manning roadblocks to stop religious Zionist sympathizers from joining their Hebron brethren. Still, when orders were given to the Duchifat Battalion to assist evicting the two settler families, 38 out of 400 soldiers initially refused to obey after many called their rabbis on cell phones. Eventually, all but eight relented. These “refuseniks,” as they were dubbed in the Israeli press, were slapped in the army prison for 14 to 28 days and some were banished from their élite combat unit. The incident has left lingering doubts over whom soldiers will obey: their commanding officers, or hard-line rabbis who believe it’s the destiny of Jews to occupy the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, even if they are now in disputed Palestinian territory? One senior IDF commander complains to TIME: “It seems like every soldier is consulting his own rabbi.” The more extremist rabbis, he says, “want to change the system,” bringing Israel’s vibrant secular society more in line with their orthodox views.

If this situation continues, Israel will find it difficult. Most Israeli politicians understand that a peace with the Palestinians will involve removing most Israeli settlers from the West Bank, and it would be the army that would be called out to help in such a operation. If such a trend of the army soldiers being swayed by rabbis continues, Israel will be in a difficult position.

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